Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Politics of Evidence Review

The Politics of Evidence Review:

Some Ideas as to how to make Evidence Review More Equitable For All But the Owls

By Robin M. Strom-Mackey

"Tom presented the clients with what he thought might be an EVP. The sound on the tape was eerie to be sure. But the clients insisted, that while eerie, the sound was really an owl that had apparently made it’s home there. Tom hedged. He didn’t want to admit that the sound was natural. After all, he had a vested interest in that owl…that owl was his evidence."

Scenario: You investigate with your group in an eerie building. The floors creak, strange noises occur overhead. Squeaky floors and pipes? Probably. Maybe you even get a couple of light anomalies on your photograph. During evidence review you find with a couple of faint noises on the voice recorders. They’re quiet and indistinguishable, and leave you scratching your head as to whether they might be valid, or if one of the investigators was actually whispering near the voice recorder?

In other words, it’s the usual ghost hunt, the vast majority of which leaves the group with evidence so ambiguous it undoubtedly makes you wonder why you bother with all the hours you put in, and what you’re going to tell the client who, fed by too many television programs boasting amazing results, is salaciously awaiting your every shred of evidence.

Who decides that an owl is an owl is an owl?

In my own group, evidence review became somewhat of a power struggle. When our second director (in a year) stepped down a new director, we’ll call him Tom for anonymity’s sake, was chosen from the among the ranks. Tom volunteered his services because he was single and had the time to commit. He, sadly, had no more expertise than anyone else in the group. Put in a rather unenviable position he quickly learned to overcome his lack of expertise with what I took to be a blustery, false bravado.

Almost immediately, I started to feel that the evidence that I gathered, sometimes extremely strong evidence, was downplayed or dismissed out of hand. Evidence that he collected or was involved with, however, seemed to be taken for gospel.

During one investigation, two female investigators and I were doing a session in a kitchen when suddenly a large bang resounded through the room. Once we had managed to pull our hearts out of our throats, we investigated the source of the noise. Because it had sounded like a door slamming, we went across the hall, where upon entering the kitchen we had noticed three doors standing open. Thinking one of these doors had slammed shut in a breeze, we were all rather astounded to find all three doors still open.

It should be noted that Tom, directly after the bang, insisted on a thorough search of the grounds. He was convinced that the investigation had been compromised. A search of the area did not however, turn up any evidence of tampering. Tom also made it a point to question the park rangers on duty, very nearly accusing them outright of false play. At the time I was mortified by what I felt was a terrible breach of etiquette. Later, I began to think that it was probably best to check and double check the authenticity of the event to the best of our abilities, and to do so while the gun was still smoking, as it were.

What was really interesting about the bang was that two other investigation groups on previous investigations (one being TAPS) a similar big bang, leading me to postulate that the sound was residual and occurred rather frequently. I thought it was an astounding piece of evidence, especially as two other groups had noted the same phenomenon. Sadly, the rest of the group, or Tom at least, disagreed with my summation.

Months afterwards I heard the incident referred to by Tom and his assistant as, “the time the door slammed shut.” They had not only discounted my findings, and ignored the evidence, but they’d managed to fabricate an explanation in the intervening time. To add insult to injury, Tom later said in a newspaper interview, that the evidence we’d gotten on the investigation was not strong, and he was still waiting for his “smoking gun.”

At the reveal for this same investigation, Tom presented the clients with what he thought might be an EVP. The sound on the tape was eerie to be sure. But the clients insisted, that while eerie, the sound was really an owl that had apparently made it’s home there. Tom hedged. He didn’t want to admit that the sound was natural. After all, he had a vested interest in that owl…that owl was his evidence.

What is Revealed and Who Should Decide?

After all the evidence is gathered, someone or perhaps a vaunted group of elite someone’s will have to make the final decision as to what is presented to the client. It’s that razor’s edge between presenting something evidential and not wanting to look like a pack of superstitious fools. Obviously what you reveal, and who makes those decisions are questions of some importance to both the reputation of the group and the desires of the client.

When I started writing this article the two questions I wanted to address was the 1) who decides and the 2) what should be presented. I quickly decided that the what of evidence review was too vast for just one short article, and was strongly dependent on the personality of the group itself. For example, certain groups on the scientific end of the spectrum would probably contend that anything not completely scientific be thrown out. American Association of Parapsychology member and avid ghost hunter, Dr. Clinton L. Vick suggested in an interview that no EVP’s other than Class A’s should ever be presented to a client. While investigators may collect any number of Class C or even B EVP’s, the Class A is a rather rare event, and therefore the presentation to clients of an EVP of that category is rare as well. This may be an approach for only the most serious of groups. Other groups take a markedly softer approach to investigating. I realized that what I was really interested in discussing was not what was presented, but who decided what was presented and how they came to that decision.

In my perusal of the literature of ghost hunting, I found shockingly little written on this topic. In the book Investigating the Haunted: Ghost Hunting Taken to the Next Level by Jennifer Lauer and Dave Schumacher of the SWPRG the authors say rather ambiguously that the reveal process should be handled with care. The authors admit that “you want to reveal everything you find, but that the important part is making sure they understand everything you are telling them.” Troy Taylor in the Ghosthunter’s Guidebook speaks at length about how to collect evidence, tools to use for collection, how to conduct historical research property, but makes no mention as to what should be revealed. I found similar non-commitment from the other handbooks I considered; a growing mound of discarded books collecting on my desk.

My personal philosophy, honed by experience and the literature is that each group should determine beforehand what type of evidence they will consider evidence and what of the evidence is considered strong enough to present to the client. Certainly, I have found that clients are often rabidly interested in collecting any evidence they can, fueled perhaps by the over zealous amount of evidence presented on television to an audience ever eager for anything paranormal. Hence, what we may withhold from a client may make for bad feelings on the part of the client, which can lead to non-cooperation in the future.

In the interest of consistency, if not fairness, the guidelines a paranormal investigation group follows should probably be written and explained so as to be clearly understood by the members of the group and the client. For example, if the group decides that certain personal experiences should never be expressed as evidence, that would probably be best explained to the client and the investigators up front. Again, in the interest of diplomacy, these guidelines should probably be written to be firmly in line with the mission or purpose of the group, and should probably be voted upon by the senior members and clearly understood by the investigators. I realize that this is starting to sound a bit more formal and structured than a lot of groups choose to be. It’s my background as a teacher dealing with teenagers that has taught me that fairness most often starts by having clear, concise and easily understood guidelines, and then following them. Without as much you have evidence collection, review and reveals that are ragged across the board, and members that start to feel that favoritism is occurring.

Second, I’m a firm believer in the evidence review committee. This was the brain child, of DGH’s former director, Domenic Calvetti. He decided on convening a small group, led by a lead investigator, that did evidence review at the same time - consider it the Steve and Tango approach only on a slightly bigger scale. Also the evidence review committee was a sliding committee, meaning one could serve the committee by choice when and if they had the time. Likewise, they could discuss the evidence as they found it versus trying to do it via email or phone calls.

This approach seems to me far more diplomatic than having only one person or one small group make all the decisions all the time, based on what they alone feel is evidence. It is also far more efficient than attempting to throw the evidence out to the discussion of the entire group - which can muddy the waters beyond all recall - as anyone who has ever opened their inbox to find 20 emails regarding the three possible EVP’s from the last investigation can contend. Having a small group, led by a Lead Investigator or possibly two, seems a much more organized environment for true, and unbiased discussion of possible evidence. I should point out, it is also a terrific learning environment for new investigators.

Third, I’m a firm believer that some type of logging form be adopted by the group and used by individuals. These logs (which are available at the back of most ghost hunting handbooks) can be written or adapted to the group should be filled and handed in with the evidence so that the review committee can take this under consideration at the time of review. This alleviates the need for second guessing. Who hasn’t played the Where Was XXXXX (fill in the name most appropriate here) Game, after all? It starts with, “where was Anthony at the time when this creaking board occurred? Was he with Gina’s group?” One look at the log would probably tell the committee exactly what they needed to know - in this case that Anthony was creeping down the stairs to get to sneak a bite of his $5.00 foot-long.

So there it is, my three recommendations. First decide up front the mission of the group and write guidelines for the collection and determination of evidence in line with those goals. Second, determine an evidential review committee, which would consist of at least one senior member of the group and volunteers. In our own group we used a rotating evidence review committee of volunteers, which was an extremely diplomatic approach and allowed for training opportunities for new recruits. Third, have investigators or small groups of investigators adopt a logging system. Have the logs on hand at the review committee if possible. I’d also suggest the group adopt some type of filing system for all the logs and any evidence collected could be kept in one place for posterity.

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