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The Trouble with Baselines

PSI’s Dave Wood exposes the fundamental problem with ‘baselining’ during paranormal investigations, and why most seem to get it wrong.

‘Baseline tests’ are one of the most commonly-shared features of modern-day ‘paranormal investigations’ and yet this ubiquity is almost shared by the propensity to get it wrong. So-called paranormal investigation equipment is one of the greatest weaknesses of anomaly research and ‘baselining’ is the keystone of many a flawed investigation method.

The concept of ‘baseline tests’ is appealingly simple in its adherence to a basic sense of science. Researchers theorise that ‘anomalous readings’ may be interesting in ‘haunting’ cases, but to establish whether an equipment reading is ‘anomalous’ you need to know what is ‘normal’. The baseline test is completely neutral, and is the starting point for both scientific theories and nonsense theories. So whether you believe a cold spot is a paranormal or xenonormal event or feel magnetic fields are associated with either ‘ghosts’ or hallucinations, everyone begins with the ‘baseline check’.

Whether baselines are employed by rational researchers or nonsense theorists several very common flaws are often shared, reducing the whole concept of the baseline test to being pseudo-scientific and useless.

The frequency of baseline checks vary. Some ‘investigators’ will walk around with hand-held equipment once at the beginning of an investigation to ‘check the baseline’. Others may leave a piece of equipment static and check it each five minutes, and various practices are common between these two.

The first problem is time sensitivity. Any environmental factor one cares to measure is time sensitive down to the second, or even more. If one were to take a baseline reading at 17:09 and record an ‘anomalous’ reading at 17:10 the data would be meaningless. The reading could be fluctuating each second or more. Even where tests are a minute apart, you cannot reliably record what is normal or ‘anomalous’. Clearly, taking a baseline reading several hours apart from another reading is beyond meaningless. The greatest problem of all is establishing what is ‘normal’ in the first place; a single reading is a split-second snapshot in a lengthy spectrum of time. The chances of a ‘baseline check’ recording the ‘norm’ – especially relative to an anomalous reading – is very slim.

A related problem is the amount of time needed to build a true picture of what is normal. A single unit of equipment is incapable of telling you whether there is a comparable difference between the location of an ‘experience’ and a location where there is no ‘experience’. A positional baseline between two identically calibrated units is essential, unless you have days and weeks in which to build a baseline.

The second problem is one of position. It is common practice to, at worst, use a unit of equipment as a portable device, or at best to only move it when ‘necessary’. Any set of readings one might wish to compare are position-specific. Even the most subtle movement of a unit of equipment effectively destroys any baseline built. For example if a piece of equipment were to be moved to take a reading, and that reading were different from the baseline, you would be able to draw no meaningful conclusion whatsoever.

The final problem is typically the equipment itself. The idea that EMF meters have no use is gradually gaining ground. The case against thermometers, spot thermometers and most data loggers is less extreme, but equally true. Almost none of the ‘stock paranormal investigation equipment’ is fit for purpose.

If any investigation follows any of these methods or pieces of equipment it is clear that any conclusions about equipment readings should be brought into question.

Four steps to a more meaningful baseline:

1. Ensure all your equipment is data logging so it can build an continual and useful baseline, for example by automatically logging every second or more.

2. Never move units of equipment, not even between rooms or sessions during a single investigation.

3. Ensure you have sufficient identical units to cover a room and incorporate a control room into your methodology.

4. Ensure your equipment is fit for purpose. For example an EMF meter is not fit for any scientific purpose. Even a non-probed data logger is useless in accurately measuring short-term temperature fluctuations.

This level of resources might beyond many groups but it is still more credible to have no equipment beyond basic audio and visual than to use the wrong equipment in the wrong way.