Ghosts in the City Hall?

There was a story on the BBC news website a couple of months ago about a local paranormal research group who were seeking access to the city hall to do a ghost hunt. I had intended writing about it at the time, but as usual these things slip my mind. But I was reminded of the story by a recent episode of the Righteous Indignation podcast where Marsh, Hayley and Trystran spent a whole episode talking about the group. The group are called the North Belfast Paranormal Research Group – NBPRG (I’m not aware of a South, East or West Belfast Paranormal Research Group – so they could probably dispense with the North bit) As Marsh said it does remind you of some of the long winded paramilitary names you got in the troubles. Apparently the City Hall are taking this seriously enough that they are asking councillors to rule on the matter. As yet I have been unable to ascertain as to whether the council have made a formal response to the group. Hopefully it wont waste too much more council time.

Obviously there is a need within scepticism to examine claims about the paranormal and this has been done for years by the likes of Joe Nickell and CSICOP. But theirs is an approach that differs radically form the type of group that the NBPRG appear to be. Essentially the NBPRG are the type of group we are familiar with from programmes like Most Haunted who use Electronic Voice Phenomena, EMF Metres and Orb Photography as the tools of their trade. I wont spend any time here explaining the problems with these techniques as Hayley Stephens does it much more succinctly here.

But to be honest I’m not so much bothered about the NBPRG gaining access to the city hall, I’m more curious about how as skeptics we should respond to this kind of story. Shows like “Most Haunted” and “Ghost Hunters” are just the latest incarnation of a centuries old tradition of telling ghost stories. This is a tradition that encompasses cultures across the globe, and has been a way of expressing morality tales or just exploring our fears of the unknown with in the safe confines of an allegory. But where the ghost hunters differ from the oral traditions of old is their attempt to claim scientific credibility through the use of cod scientific methods.

So, how should we respond? Complaining may just confirm to people that we are the cynical kill joys that they already suspected we were. I think any approach needs to be humorous and educational rather than dry and hectoring. A letter to the Belfast Telegraph may have been appropriate but to be honest I think there are bigger fish to fry.

Many people watch “Ghost Hunters” because of its tongue in cheek style and the programme has virtually become a parody of itself – but it has fed in to this world of “big name” psychic readers such as Derek Akora and Sally Morgan, and it is with these high profile characters that the sceptical movement is now focusing its attention. Project Barnum was set up last year after Sally Morgan was accused of being fed information from somebody behind the scenes at her Dublin show. The site aims to provide information to people about the psychological tricks used by mediums to convince people of their “skills”. Sally’s story has remained in the news thanks to the efforts of Simon Singh and The Merseyside Skeptics Society. The latest incident relating to a reading given to Drew McAdam in Edinburgh after he had already e-mailed Sally with the details that she went on to supposedly reveal from the spirit world.

Both Sally Morgan and Derek Akora are “performing” in Belfast over the next couple of months. Although I wouldn’t want to support them by actually paying to hear them talk – it may be a good opportunity to promote the work of Project Barnum.


29th March – Sally Morgan at Belfast Waterfront Hall

18th May – Derek Akora at The Ulster Hall