Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Ghost Experiment

Yesterday I was looking for an online video or transcript from the National Geographic Channel show "Is It Real? Ghosts" because it included an interview with Richard Wiseman about a study he did in Mary King's Close in Edinburgh, Scotland. It took a long time to find the video and in the process, I looked at a lot of other videos purporting to be genuine evidence of ghosts. First of all, every aspiring special effects cinematographer over the age of five makes a video that they post on YouTube as real ghost video. Some are really awful, most are obviously faked, but a very small percentage look very real and I couldn't figure out how they could be faked. None of the videos had enough context to give them any real credibility, though, so they were just fun to watch. Considering all the attempts to fool viewers, it would be almost impossible to present any evidence that could convince a skeptic that ghosts are real with anything less than a face to face introduction.

Eventually I got around to watching the show with Richard Wiseman. In case you don't know who he is, He's a noted psychologist, author, magician and skeptic with a really fun blog. On the "Is It Real" episode he was talking about an experiment he did in the reportedly haunted underground chambers of Mary King's Close. His interview didn't really give enough information so I had to do some googling for more information. Wiseman took pictures of four rooms; two are said to have lots of ghostly activity, and two, not so much. The pictures were posted on the internet, so people could vote on which locations looked most scary. The rooms supposed to be more haunted were picked by the internet voters as more scary.

the next step was to place volunteers in the rooms and have them report on the number and type of ghostly experiences they had. Once again, those in the rooms with the reputations reported the most sensations of haunting. Richard Wiseman concluded that a location that is perceived as scary causes people to feel a heightened sense of being haunted (that was my understanding of the experiment in the Cliff Notes version. Sorry, Richard if I got it all wrong.)

The video alone is less detailed and almost sounds like Richard Wiseman was saying that he put volunteers in rooms where ghosts are reportedly seen and the volunteers saw the ghosts, so that proves that ghosts are imaginary. Isn't that clear as mud?

What I would like to have seen as part of the experiment, that I didn't find in my internet search, would be a control group. If volunteers were placed in locations that had similar physical characteristics to the rooms in Mary King's Close, but had no reports of haunting, it would reenforce the results if the control group reported similar experiences. I don't think the experiment as I understood it would convince many people. Those that support the assertion that the Close is haunted would merely say that the participants experienced more ghostly phenomena in the scary rooms because those rooms are more haunted.

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