When I teach my introduction to communication research methods course, I am always surprised by the number of students who struggle in understanding how the scientific method really works. To help them better understand this method and become more skeptical of many of the claims they find in messages on television and the Internet, I take the class on a ghost hunt. I use this activity so they can experience a typical paranormal investigation for themselves and see how these investigations fall short of being considered valid science.
I usually schedule this activity for around 10 p.m. on a Friday night so it will be less likely to disrupt the students’ weekday schedule. Even though this is a voluntary, out of class activity, I am always surprised by the large number of students who participate. I can sense the students’ growing excitement as we spend some time talking about various ghost hunting techniques we can use. To make this activity appear more real to the participants, I prefer using a location with some previous reports of paranormal activity but almost any location where permission can be obtained for access will work. A local cemetery or even a patch of dark woods should work fine, especially if some stories can be told about the nature of the haunting, even if made up, before the event takes place.
Since there are so many of these ghost hunting shows on television, most of the students are familiar with the tools and techniques used by these ghost hunters. Over the years I have been conducting this activity, I have acquired a number of tools similar to those shown on these programs. I currently provide several flashlights, a relatively inexpensive EMF (electromagnetic field) meter (marketed on the Internet as a cell phone EMF sensor), an infrared temperature sensor (used by air conditioning contractors to measure air temperatures from a distance), two infrared, wireless video cameras with a video monitor, and a video camera with an infrared, low-light feature. Since using these tools make the experience similar to what they see on television, I find it is easier to show just how fake these shows are in our later discussion. However, the tools used in this activity can be as simple or complex as desired. I would suggest a minimum of a flashlight, a digital still or video camera, a few coins, paper and a pencil (the students draw a circle around the coins on the paper and leave them in various locations to see if they get moved).
On the night of the activity, the students and I meet at a location near the ”haunted” destination. I then give an overview of the tools we will be using and how to use them. We also talk about common techniques seen on the ghost hunting television shows such as listening, observing, sweeping each room for cold spots and EMF spikes and how we can duplicate these on our hunt. If a large number of students participate, I break them into groups of no more than four or five members each. I find anything larger tends to be too disruptive for the participants to successfully benefit from the activity.
When we arrive at the location, I set up the wireless cameras in two separate areas we will be investigating and set up the monitoring station in a third room. We also place a few of the coins circled on paper in each of the rooms. Two of the groups are given equipment and sent to each of the two rooms. The remaining groups remain at the monitoring station so they can see and hear what the others are experiencing. Each group investigates a room for about fifteen to twenty minutes and then returns to the observation station so another group can have a turn. This continues until each group has had the opportunity to investigate at least one room. As we gather up the wireless cameras, we check the coins to see if they have been moved. After we finish packing up, we spend a few minutes talking about what they experienced. Usually, these experiences include things such as noises, spikes on the EMF meter, temperature drops and orbs appearing on the video feed at the monitoring station. I ask them to think about what all these things really mean and if this can be considered evidence of ghosts.
The next time the class meets, I show them some video clips recorded during the activity. We then discuss any evidence they found during the investigation. If they experienced readings on their equipment, I ask them what this means and if it is truly evidence supporting the existence of ghosts. To get them thinking critically, I tell them what these tools were really designed for and ask them how anyone could possibly know what signals a ghost gives off when no one has ever captured a ghost to study. We also discuss any thing else such as strange noises they heard and what other possible explanations besides ghosts might offer a more realistic explanation for them. We finish up this discussion reviewing the steps in the scientific method and how these types of paranormal investigations fall short in comparison.
To find out if this experience helps the students better understand the important ideas, I assign a short paper in which they are instructed to discuss the steps in the scientific method and how a typical paranormal investigation is not really valid science. Since I have been conducting this activity, I have noticed an overall improvement in the understanding and correct application of the scientific method. I also find the students to be more critical and skeptical of claims made in the media. This is particularly true for those who took part in the activity as they tend to perform better in the discussion and on this paper than the students who did not participate.