Frank Warren runs the UFO Chronicles web site. This site collects and reposts UFO information from various sources, sort of a clearing house of reports and opinions in this field.
I have corresponded with Frank on many occasions and he is uniformly polite and civil (something I really have to work at!) and seems to be willing to answer questions and defend his opinion in a good-natured and truthful way.
Frank is also the source of the nice quality scan of the famous Battle of Los Angeles photo that appears all over the internet. Prior to his 2002 release of the image, the only versions that seem to be available are newsprint quality scans or microfilms from the WWII-era Los Angeles Times.
The Battle of Los Angeles is a truly engrossing episode in U.S. history during WWII. On the night of February 24th, 1942, the city of Los Angeles was thrown into panic as people believed a Japanese attack of the city was underway. Over 1400 anti-aircraft shells were fired, searchlights raked the skies, and a total blackout of the city was ordered. Three civilians were killed by the barrage.
By the next day it was realized that there was no attack and the whole episode was likely a false alarm, possibly caused by a drifting weather balloon or perhaps even just frayed nerves.
Steven Spielberg made a big-budget movie about the incident, 1941, that tanked at the box office but is still legendary for some of its spectacular pre-CGI special effects.
This brings us back to the photo. Many UFO proponents believe that they can see a suspicious shape in the convergence of the search beams. The amazing photo really captures the drama of the night but arguments that the photo shows a saucer seem particularly ill-conceived.
Bruce Maccabee, the UFO photo analyst who apparently thinks most any photo submitted to him is anomalous, published a paper that supported the idea that photo showed a solid craft of some kind. The paper tried desperately to appear scientific but the conclusions made were unsupported by the evidence at hand. And the Photoshop manipulations he presented, contained no revelations except the bias of the writer. Incidentally, Maccabee also recently used his skills to unconvincingly try to show that a trail-cam photo of an owl was more likely something else, like maybe a Bigfoot.
Tim Printy, in his excellent journal of UFO skepticism, SUNlite, ran a recent piece (Pages 17-22) that clearly shows, using archival photos unrelated to the BOLA, that the shapes UFO believers see are just an artifact of converging beams of searchlights in the cloudy or smoky sky. On page 22, of that issue, you can see a searchlight photo that clearly shows the same elliptical white shape that the UFO buffs are so excited about. But that photo is not a UFO photo.
I have always been interested in the BOLA photo but in August of last year, I decided to write to Frank Warren and inquire about the photo and how he secured the negative:
I recently saw a piece attributed to you about the famous Battle of Los Angeles photo. In the piece you say that the somewhat low resolution scan was taken from a print made from the original negative.
I am inquiring about the negative itself.
Did you obtain the print from the LA Times?
And did you witness the negative itself? What else can you say about the negative?
Were there other shots on the same roll.
Do you know what type of film was used, etc.In short, I would appreciate any details about the negative you used to make the print.
I assumed that, even though Frank is well aware that I am a skeptic, such information would still be forthcoming. Most legitimate researchers are only too glad to provide references for their work. So I was taken aback by Frank's reply:
"I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to divulge that information... The methodology used to find it, as well as its local [sic] confirms its provenance."
I was surprised but, after dealing with other UFO researchers, I wasn't shocked. I have often seen a rather silly need among UFO researchers to jealously guard their work. Indeed, Frank, in a later letter, told me:
"My work on BOLA is ongoing; my experience in sharing pertinent case information has always been detrimental to said research--in short it has always come back to 'bite me in the ass.' (No offense intended to you)."
Frank did confirm for me that he had not seen the negative. In which case I replied, he could not confirm that actual negative had been used. Frank assured me that I was wrong:
“The authenticity of the negative, and the print I have from it along with its provenance and or bona fides has been established (and isn't in question) to my satisfaction (and then some), and would be to anyone, including you "if you were cognizant of the methodology used to locate it, along with its location.”
Sounds official, no? At any rate, I had a reason for asking about the provenance of the negative, which I told Frank about:
"The reason that I was even asking was that I had some reprints of photos made from several newspapers when I was researching Otis T. Carr. It was obvious when I got the prints that they were not printed from the negatives and they were often crudely retouched (this was apparently common for newspapers last century). The low quality newsprint hid the alterations, I think."
This reached deaf ears, apparently. Frank was sure that he had an authentic print from the original negative. Frank (along with many other UFO buffs) had already decided that the photo showed an “elliptical shaped craft.” But his “work” on the photo (eight years after the release of the print!) was still ongoing.
So stymied by Frank’s secrecy, I tried to locate the photos myself. I quickly determined that most of the LA Times photos had been turned over to the UCLA photo archives. I was able to get a coordinator there to do a cursory search for the photo but she was unable to find it. I could have paid to have a more thorough search done but I was only casually interested and didn’t want to spend the money. And anyway, I thought, ‘surely Frank isn’t trying to hide the fact that the negative is just in the collection where anyone would expect it to be. How dumb would that be?’
Flash-forward to 2011 and the release of the (apparently rather bad) science fiction film, Battle: Los Angeles. Over at the LA Times, Scott Harrison, a photographer, perhaps seeing an angle on the new film, decided to look into the original BOLA incident and the famous photo.
A researcher immediately located the negative in the the UCLA archive (damn it!) but even more interestingly, he located another negative! It seems the famous photo that appeared in the paper and was "analyzed" by UFO proponents wasn't real. It was a heavily retouched concoction: exactly what I warned Frank about a year earlier! The original unretouched (and unseen) negative was also found and looks much different than the published version.
"In the retouched version, many light beams were lightened and widened with white paint, while other beams were eliminated.
In earlier years, it was common for newspapers to use artists to retouch images due to poor reproduction — basically 10 shades of gray if you were lucky.
Thus my conclusion: the retouching was needed to reproduce the image. But man, I wish the retouching had been more faithful to the original. With our current standards, this image would not be published."
Upon learning of this development, I admit that I was mad. If Frank had been more forthcoming, I might have pushed further in my search and uncovered all this myself. But since I would have been doing everything long distance, who knows?
I also admit that I was quite amused at how starkly Frank's protocol of not sharing information had made his solemn pronouncements of authenticity look supremely foolish.
With sad predictability, UFO buffs now say that they can see a different anomalous shape in the convergence of the lights of the real image. Bruce Maccabee, bravely hid his old (and now completely discredited) "analysis" of the retouched photo and substituted a new "analysis" of the real negative. Of course he still sees something in there.
And so it goes.
To his great credit, Frank immediately admitted his mistake but stands unrepentant for sticking to his protocol of not sharing information with other researchers. He says that he lives by this protocol.
The sheer hubris of having (and living by!) a protocol for not sharing information without apparently having any protocols for even insuring the authenticity of that infomation is amusing. But this is UFO "research" and so, par for the course.
For me this episode is sort of a snapshot example as to why so many consider UFOlogy a pseudoscience. And why it will always be that way.
Note that this blog will now cover matters related to the paranormal and skepticism. Just covering TV ghost hunters was a funny idea but hard to pull off with any kind of regularity.
Perhaps in an effort to turn the tables on their tormentors, it is currently in-vogue among paranormal enthusiasts to dismiss skeptics by referring to them as dogmatic disbelievers, hellbent on debunking any paranormal claim, regardless of the evidence.
It's almost as though the believers are saying, "You guys are just as bad as us!"
Logically the argument falls apart when you consider how unequal the two ideas are. For instance, which scenario below is more likely:
1. A believer in the paranormal sees a shadow or a light out of the corner of his eye and thinks for a moment that the fleeting image looked like a ghost. Even though he really didn't get a good look at it, he becomes convinced that he saw an apparition.
2. A skeptic walks into a room only to be greeted by the ghost of a long deceased relative. The image is clear and unambiguous. The ghost speaks to the skeptic and tells him where to find a long lost (and valuable) family heirloom: at the back of a cabinet in the basement. But once the ghost dematerializes, the skeptic (being all skeptical) convinces himself that the event never could have happened. And he never looks in that cabinet.
The actions of the person described in the first scenario are fairly reasonable, even if the critical thinking skills are not particularly sharp. We can understand and sympathize with that person.
But it seems like you would have to be one stubborn and psychotic individual in the second scenario. From my perspective as a skeptic, it seems unlikely that anyone could really be that hard core. And yet over and over again on paranormal discussion boards we hear that believers think many skeptics are just that bad.
One of the most frequently cited sources for proof of this supposed skeptical bias is the infamous sTARBABY article from Fate Magazine. Many sites present this article as proof that the dreaded skeptics are willing to actually alter data in order to hide paranormal proof.
sTARBABY was written in 1981 by Dennis Rawlins one of the founding members of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), the well-known skeptical organization.
Rawlins was asked to help out with one of the committee's first investigations. A French researcher, Michel Gauquelin, published work that seemed to show evidence for something he called The Mars Effect.
What Gauquelin believed he had demonstrated was that the position of the planet, Mars, at one’s birth had a significant effect on whether or not that person became a sports champion.
In other words, it was clear evidence for Astrology.
And when Rawlins examined the Gauquelin’s data, he agreed that the data did show exactly that. But Rawlins says that the other members of CSICOP, particularly leader, Paul Kurtz, freaked out and insisted on publishing rushed, misleading and flawed refutations and obscurations of Gauquelin’s work. In other words CSICOP covered up evidence of the paranormal.
Additionally, Rawlins felt slighted by other members of the Committee for belittling and dismissing his credentials, his contribution and his advice.
Rawlins was extremely angry about it all and things deteriorated from there. Ultimately he was unceremoniously booted off the Committee.
The whole matter is quite complicated and the sTARBABY article itself can be generously described as rambling. I have simplified things greatly in the above overview.
sTARBABY was quickly published by Fate and the magazine gloated about the infighting among the skeptics, calling it “The Great Debunking Scandal”. It became a rallying cry against skepticism.
Here are some examples of how some current pro-paranormal sites describe the skeptics in sTARBABY:
CSICOP member, Phil Klass ,wrote a detailed refutation of sTARBABY, pointedly calling it Crybaby. Not surprisingly, Fate refused to publish Klass's work. It remained unpublished but is now widely available on the net.
In reading Rawlins’ and Klass’ works,I come away feeling that Rawlins had been wronged but that he shared some the responsibility for what happened as well. A portion of his complaints amounts to little more than a list of academic pissing contests over who is the smarter or more qualified scientist. And much of the organizational back-stabbing and politics depicted reminds me of the stuff that happens in all groups, from your mom’s Mah Jong club to the halls of government--and certainly in the sometimes bitter world of academia.
In short, I think Kurtz and CSICOP should have been more forthcoming in their original analysis of Gauquelin’s work and that their effort to hide the results did a lot of harm to skepticism. But I think Rawlins has somewhat overblown the whole matter and overstated the bad intentions of his colleagues.
Indeed, it is eye-opening to know that the evil skeptics who were accused of obscuring the Mars Effect evidence are the same folks who actually published Gauquelin’s work (in the same issue and uncensored!) in the first place. And Rawlins himself was allowed 6 pages of rebuttal in Skeptical Inquirer.
Furthermore, attempts to replicate the Gauquelin results, an effort Kurtz and CSICOP funded, showed no Mars Effect. A later independent study confirmed the non-result.
There is no Mars Effect
But details like that mean little to the paranormal community. Believer sites everywhere distort what happened to make the affair seem something that it was not. Most of them leave the impression that the Mars Effect is a real and scientifically proven phenomenon and that, in order to hide this, CSICOP fudged the numbers and falsified the data.
“That is not true,” Rawlins told me in a delightful conversation I had with him recently. Nowhere in sTARBABY is there any claim of falsified data. This is an invention of those who support non-scientific beliefs like astrology.
Time has not softened Rawlins’ feeling about CSICOP and particularly Kurtz. Indeed, he feels that what did happen is almost as bad as falsifying the data. “what’s the difference between that and changing the rules?” he asks.
All in all, the sTARBABY affair is a regrettable one. It gives paranormal supporters ammunition against skepticism, ammunition that is predictably bolstered by distortion and falsification. It's amusing to see the purveyors of superstition lament the accuracy of data, something that seems of little concern to them in their own endeavors.
The UFO community has been riveted to the story of the exposure of a fraudulent United Nations/ Alien ambassador. I have been watching this story unfold with great amusement.
Fridays at 9pm
Of all the fake ghost hunting shows, Ghost Adventures probably qualifies as the most annoying.
Hosted by the ever-preening Zak Bagans, a film school graduate with a penchant for horridly overwrought prose like "When darkness falls, we chase the darkness." He must write the stuff himself because he delivers each painful line as though he is reading from scripture.
Zak is also one of the world's worst actors, which is a shame since he does a lot of acting in each show. He approaches each case with an absurd tough guy act, constantly challenging ghosts: "Bring it on." Zak loves to gesture, pro wrestling-style, putting his hands right into our faces when he is trying to make a worthless point. It all comes across as trying just a little bit too hard.
Zak often interviews people who have claim some experience on the site. His outrageously leading questions sometimes make even the interviewees squirm. Of course, like all the other shows, the events described as occurring on the sites vastly outstrip what the ghost hunters actually find. We hear of full body apparitions, glowing eyes, spectral faces, etc., etc. But never, never is anything like that ever actually found by Zak or his team. Sometimes the best he can manage is to feel cold spots, or spectral touches. These allow him to really stretch out his acting skills, to great comedic effect. He also often presents the standard lame EVP's, dubious door slams, and unclear images.
Like many of the shows, recreated images and sounds are mixed in with the "real" stuff, making it impossible to determine what is being presented as "evidence". We can see the heavy ham hands of the producers as they try to wring out the maximum oooga booga for their indiscriminate audience.
Ghost Adventures also uses tons of dubious gadgets (see my Bag of Tricks article for some examples). Since none of the little electronic boxes are documented or explained, I view all of them with great suspicion. As I documented, one of their gadgets was just a cheap flashlight.
Some questionable stuff from a recent show, set at an abandoned prison:
• Batteries were drained "instantly" from the wireless mics but NEVER from the cameras (then there would be nothing for the show!). There was some priceless overacting "What? What?...I just put new batteries in 5 minutes ago!"
• The crew claimed then claimed that the audio for the on-board camera mics went out, too. It's hard to prove that they are lying but I would be willing to bet that they simply turned down the input for the drama. It is too convenient that the video never went out. The whole incident had all the earmarks of prearranged corny dramatic stunt.
• A supposed mist was shown behind Zak that was obviously just a reflection in the low quality night vision image.
Ghost Adventures is an example of lowest common denominator TV, cheap, dumb and patently false. The silly host makes this one particularly loathsome.
Not A Ghost.com Grade: F
Ghost Hunters International
January 6, 2010
For the past month, Syfy has advertised the return of GHI and their spectacular search for Hitler's ghost. The promos promised "definitive" and "concrete" evidence. They got me so hyped up that I was halfway expecting them to find Hitler's brain in jar, barking out plans for a new world order.
Did the team deliver? Well, they did deliver something...
The entire show depended upon an idiotic premise. Let me ask you a quick question: If you were searching for Hitler's ghost, on what continent might you start your search?
South America, right?
The team decided to accept the incredibly dubious conspiracy theory that Hitler survived WWII and hid out in an Argentinian hotel, a hotel that his ghost stills haunts today. I am surprised they didn't spend any time looking for Kennedy while they were there.
Their contact in Argentina told of a recent photo that purportedly showed Hitler looking out of one of the windows of the hotel. It sounded like a great and compelling bit of evidence. I say it sounded that way since we never got a chance to look at the photo. The GHI apparently never saw it either but, in their typical silly fashion, they accepted it as convincing evidence.
So anyway, even though they may have looked in a dumb place and accepted evidence sight unseen, maybe they still managed to find something paranormal, right?
Not so much.
One of the funniest things about the program was watching the different teams as they called out to Hitler, seemingly at the same time! Perhaps Hitler was trying to materialize one place but kept getting interrupted by a team member in another room: "Hey, Hitler, this is Bob, can you bang on something in here?"
Equally funny was hearing the team members speak with the former German dictator in an paranormal slacker dialect, all in English with the occasional German word (drawn from the full vocabulary of Hogan's Heroes) thrown in. "Ist der Furher hier?"
This show featured a new gadget, a remote controlled toy tank equipped with cameras and other sensors. They sent the tank into a crawl space where it promptly got stuck. Later, during the analysis of "evidence," one of the team thought they heard something unusual from the tank. Fortunately no one else on the team was so dumb that they thought a whining sound coming from a toy tank that is loaded with servos and motors was likely paranormal.
A classic case of ghost brain, occured when two team members heard something in the room above them. They rushed up and threw open a door, only to have several birds fly out past them in flurry of wings admidst screams from the team members. Then, believe it or not, the scientific investigators went into the room and proclaimed that there was nothing there that could have made the sound. I thought I even heard the birds laughing at that one!
It had already become clear that nothing concrete or definitive was going to be revealed by the time the crew showed their main piece of evidence: a grainy image with lots of lights reflecting into the camera which they said showed a ghost sitting at the edge of a bed. When they helpfully circled the figure (since it was completely indiscernible without assistance), it looked sort of like the shape of the film character, E.T., but was obviously just shadows and light reflections. It was sad.
As the crew packed up their equipment, I noticed not one iota of embarrassment, not a hint that any of them realized how silly they looked. It must take a thick skin to be a pretend ghost hunter on TV. That, or an astounding lack of intelligence.
Ghost hucksters use a variety techniques and technologies to produce their dubious results. You can't be a fake ghost hunter on TV unless you know how to thoroughly misuse these tools:
For some reason, all of the ghost shows insist on turning off the lights during their "investigations". Perhaps the spirits prefer darkness or more likely the producers know that they need something to increase the drama of what is basically a bunch of folks sitting in a room while nothing happens. The green-hued night-vision cameras make everything look a little creepy, especially the investigators.
As we will see, what is mainly needed in the ghost selling business is uncertainty. It's the same principle as when a child sees the shape of a dragon in the clouds. Crisp, clear images won't work for ghost hunting, you need grainy, dark video so that the slightest shadow, reflection or speck of dust can be claimed as paranormal.
And even though all of the ghost teams seem to have a huge number of cameras recording their activity, it is depressingly common for one of the team members to point out some paranormal event that is just out range of their lenses. Indeed, most of the time the cameras seem to be trained on the team members themselves as they sit around crudely demanding that the ghosts do this or do that as though they are speaking to trained monkeys instead of the dearly departed.
Electronic Voice Phenomena or EVP is really the workhorse of ghost hunters. All of the shows use this one tool to provide the bulk of what they present as paranormal evidence. In plain language, EVP is just an audio recording that seems to contain spoken words or other interesting sounds. The EVP sounds are often unheard at the time of the recording.
The trick is that the recordings always contain a lot of white noise: the natural presence of a room or building (often called "room tone" in the film business) as well as the inevitable sounds of the ghost hunting team tramping around. It is in this noise (which is often turned up very loud to reveal more "detail" and thus more noise) that the hucksters find the uncertainty they need to ply their trade.
Another contributing factor is that the shows often use the lowest quality of digital recording equipment. In this day and age, there are very high quality portable recording devices. I own a little recorder called the Edirol R-09 that produces amazing quality audio. A quick look at some of the handheld recorders that the hucksters use indicates that the cheapest brands are employed, devices that undoubtedly produce a compressed and noise-filled signal. And I suspect that this is exactly what is desired.
Considering the uncontrolled nature of the investigations, the actual sounds could be anything: a voice from outside the building or from one of the other team members (infuriatingly, most of the teams split up and we are never quite sure where the other guys might be). On a recent Ghost Adventures show, the investigators made a big deal about a hissing sound they heard in a recording but the accompanying video clearly showed that the sound came from another crew member as he inhaled. Needless to say, this evidence went unnoticed by anyone on the crack team.
In most cases, the EVPs are quite unintelligible, just vague sounds with nothing distinctive, so the hucksters helpfully display text on the screen as the sound is played back over and over, a psychological technique, designed to make the audience believe that they are hearing what the producers want them to hear.
On a recent episode of Ghost Lab, the folly of this technique was hilariously revealed when the team found a snippet of audio that they all agreed said something like "I am John Wilkes Booth." The meaty hosts were high-fiving each other over their paranormal prowess. This was a slam dunk! They sent the audio to an "expert" who confirmed that he heard something in the snippet. But when they breathlessly asked him to confirm the "Booth" statement, the expert admitted he couldn't really hear anything intelligible. I would bet that this kind of embarrassing mistake won't be made again on that show!
Electromagnetic Field Detector
It's hard to say what the hucksters are trying to sell us with EMF detectors. They walk around with the units and get excited whenever the readings change. The truth is that a building filled with electrical wires and devices is going to have EMFs (especially considering all the cheap, consumer-grade gear that the hucksters drag into the location). By moving around, the ghost hunters are actually insuring that the readings will change. To the hunter, this means something. To someone who is not tragically gullible, it means little.
Thermographic and Infrared Video
Again, we have a technology that has been hijacked by the hucksters to prove something. What they are trying to prove is pretty hazy. Thermographic cameras pick up the heat value of the objects they record. But it is tricky to get to the bottom of just what might have caused any heat in a given location. The ghost hunters try to pretend that their locations are scientifically controlled. But video available on YouTube clearly shows that crew members wander around all over the place (and, comically, sometimes directly into an ongoing investigation scene). There can also be other ways to contaminate a scene with heat: animals can be on the site, electrical devices can be warm from use, or perhaps the furnace is blowing on one area more than another. Regardless of the source, calling a heat signature "paranormal" has no scientific validity.
Crazy Made-Up Devices
Hilariously, the show, Ghost Adventures, has introduced the world to some crazy investigatory devices, previously unknown to science. These devices are unlikely to ever be used by anyone except fake ghost hunters. Who knows where these gadgets really come from but they all depend upon the same uncertainty and randomness principles that are the huckster's stock in trade. In one episode, the host held a box which he said contained a word database that ghosts could manipulate so that words would appear on some silly looking sunglasses he wore. No further explanation is given but sure enough words came out of the device that were sold as paranormal. Another device used on Ghost Adventures is claimed to be something called a Dark Light. An absurd explanation is given about the light penetrating the veil between the living world and the afterlife and attracting ghosts like moths to a flame. After considerable investigation of my own, I can now confirm the mysterious Dark Light is a cheap $17 LED work light from Husky. Check out their own picture (it's the third photo in the slide show) at the Ghost Adventures site and compare it to the one at the right. It does appear that the Ghost Adventures team has placed a handmade label on the light that helpfully reads "Dark Light". Very mysterious!
Psychics and other Experts
When an investigation is running a bit dry on drama, count on the ghost teams to call in a psychic or paranormal expert. These individuals can be counted on to find cold spots or feel presences and to theatrically announce them. The psychic will often have an imaginary conversation with the spirits when they are too darn shy to show up for the cameras. This provides "evidence" when the hucksters can't manage to produce any acceptable stuff (even using their low standards of acceptance). And it is all very exciting!
When all else fails, you can always jump up in fright, make a high-pitched scream or just run like hell. Never mind that the video shows nothing at all. Somewhere there is someone at home who is eating it all up. Such is the refuge of fake TV ghost hunter.
Although Television has always been thought of as a cesspool of mediocrity, it seems hard to deny that today's trend of cheap "reality" programs has lowered the bar to previously unimagined depths. On most any cable channel you can find a parade of self-absorbed, cruel, stupid, and despicable people, willing to do anything to be on the air:
• Husbands taking their wives to TV court to shamelessly publicize every detail of their private lives.
• Women taking several men at once to Maury Povich to ascertain which is the father of one or more of their babies.
• Clueless kids with clown-like orange tans on the Jersey coast, unaware that they have been chosen as reality subjects solely because they are so freakishly unpleasant.
• Rich but worthless housewives grasping for some meaning in their vapid lives by pretending to be creative or smart or attractive despite all the contrary evidence being right out in the open.
So in such low company, I don't suppose that the ghost hunting programs are any worse than the rest. Indeed, one can see a great deal of humor in the antics of completely unqualified buffoons spouting out wholly unscientific ideas to support their silly theories.
It is amazing to note that there are no less than 8 ghost hunting shows on the air right now! Each one has its own charms but all of them struggle with the same problem: they never produce any results. Ever.
It is with bemusement that we wonder just who watches these endless hours of night-vision banality, all of it looking exactly the same, tarted up with sound effects and editing tricks but never showing anything.
Here at What the Hell Was That? we watch for amusement but we also watch with the unspoken fear that someone somewhere believes this crap.
It is because of that fear that this site exists. We hope to point out the most outrageous mistakes, the most misguided explanations, and the silliest statements that these ghost hucksters present for their undiscriminating audience.
And if you happen to be one of the believers, we pity you but we also hope that we can change your mind. Stay Tuned.