I’ve Just Been Plagiarized – But It Turned Out Okay

Plagiarism is a problem no matter where you find it.  When it is uncovered, it can end journalism careers, sully the reputation of novelists and, if it happens in the academic world, get you kicked right out of school.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out recently an article I wrote a couple of years ago had been plagiarized by a fellow blogger.
This past Sunday, I was interviewing Benjamin Radford about his new book for Strange Frequencies Radio.  During the course of our discussion, we talked about how frustrating it can be when, while researching a particular topic, you come across websites or even books which contain not just poor scholarship, but so-called “research” which has just been copied and pasted from the internet.

Paranormal sites, it must be said, are often repeat offenders.  Over the years, I’ve found a great number of ghost hunting websites whose articles and terminology pages have been lifted, word for word, from other similar websites.  After the interview was over, while my co-host Bobby was uploading the recording we made to our server, I was checking out the internet when I noticed I had a new comment here on my Fortean Squirrel blog.  A reader named John was informing me that, while reading an article I had written about fraud in the paranormal community, he noticed some similarities to another article he had read online about the same issue.  He linked me to the blog post in question and I went to check it out.

What I read was stunning.  Large portions of it sounded very familiar.  I opened up another page with my own article to check exactly how familiar it was.  With only a cursory reading it quickly became clear that, not only did I write my piece a full year before this one, but that entire passages had been copied word for word.  It was as if the blogger had simply copied and pasted sections of my article right into her own, not bothering to reword anything.

For instance, in my post, “A Picture of Paranormal Fraud,” in which I document a ghost hunting team called Ghosts of New England Research Society (G.O.N.E.R.S) passing off a fraudulent ghost photo as authentic, I write:   “The story soon went viral and Ghosts of New England Research Society took the image down, apparently not commenting publicly on the matter.  Many in the paranormal community have taken this incident to be the prime example why paranormal investigation is not accepted by the scientific mainstream.”

Furthermore, I wrote:  “Ghost hunters, by and large, have a fundamental misunderstanding of how to operate under proper scientific methodologies or even to control their experiments.  The evidence they put forth is not given credibility because it isn’t evidence.  At best, it is often just anomalies they found on their digital voice recorders or readings they took on their EMF meters.  Anomalies which, by the way, have been explained countless times by science-based investigators.”

Here are partial screenshots taken from the blogger’s page, which includes not just these two paragraphs, but some other portions of my work as well:

This is not exactly the first time this has happened to me.  As I mentioned earlier, plagiarism and copying is rampant in the paranormal community, and I have found entire blog posts I have written elsewhere on the internet without any attribution whatsoever.  Even the Richard Dawkins Foundation once copied an entire interview I did as a contribution to The Bent Spoon Magazine, pasted it to their own website, and all I got was a tiny link way down at the bottom of the page which was nearly impossible to notice.  Why someone would click that link to read my source article when they’ve already been able to read it in its entirety on Richard Dawkins’ website is a mystery.  Still, while this sort of thing has happened to me before, this particular instance felt somehow worse.  I guess I was happy someone liked my writing, but it just felt so dishonest and sneaky to steal it and pass it off as their own.

I contacted the blogger, Pam Wellington, and chided her for her plagiarism.  I explained how dishonest it is, and told her that it is shockingly ironic to be writing an article about fraud and poor research when she is fraudulently using my work as her own.  She actually got back to me within about 24 hours and was, I felt, sincere in her contrition.  She apologized for what she had done, and thanked me for calling her out on it.  She said that, while she is normally very meticulous, she had probably rushed this particular article.  I was not clear how simply being in a hurry led her to copy whole portions of my work into her own, but be that as it may.  She promised to delete the sections she had plagiarized, and I’ve remained in contact with her to make sure of that, since she doesn’t seem entirely confident on what she stole and what she didn’t.

I’m satisfied with the outcome thus far, and I thanked Pam for being receptive to criticism.  She owned her mistake, and I appreciated that, even if I wasn’t happy with the situation that led to our correspondence.  Some will say I let her off easy, and maybe I did.  The truth is, I could have just made her delete the whole blog.  But I didn’t really want that.  I just wanted what was fair.  If my rebuke leads to her being more careful about citing her sources in the future, and ensuring the work she says is her own really is her own, I consider that a win.

Plagiarism will likely remain an ongoing issue, particularly in the paranormal community.  The one thing I think we can do is to call it out when we happen to find it.  Tell the writer it is unacceptable, and affects your decision on whether you will continue reading their work.  I haven’t always had good luck getting a response from people who I have found to have stolen my work before but, at least in this case, the outcome appears to be headed in a more positive direction.

The Hoaxing of Poasttown

If ghost hunters believe they captured evidence of the paranormal at a location they now admit was not haunted, what does that say about the evidence they captured at any other location?  That’s a question myself and a lot of skeptics are asking now that Poasttown Elementary has been exposed as perpetrating a hoax on the ghost hunting public.

Darrell Whisman

This past Saturday, Aron Houdini released evidence he had of Darrell Whisman, the caretaker of Poasttown Elementary, and Jay Lynch of Hindsight Paranormal, tricking paranormal investigators.  He claims to have personally seen Mr. Whisman “purposely set a door so that it would slam shut,” both Whisman and Lynch, “create shadow figures with flashlights” and “use their cell phones to create noises” that investigators would mistake for EVPs.  He also claims to have witnessed each of them stand in rooms “using open air vents to send noises to other rooms,” flip light switches and breakers on and off, and use night vision cameras to watch people in the dark so they can avoid being caught.  And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.  Several other people who have witnessed similar things have also released statements.

But perhaps the most stunning allegation to many ghost hunters was the information that no adult or child has ever died on the property.  This must come as a shock to the many who have seen documentaries from a pair of twins who have helped perpetuate this apparent myth.

Ghost hunters who have visited Poasttown have reacted in a variety of ways.  I have spoken to some who are acknowledging the fact that they were fooled and have vowed to cancel plans for upcoming investigations there.  Another team I know of had planned to stage an event there in the spring of 2013.  They have since decided to change venues.  Others are simply furious that a location they supported for years has turned out to not only not be haunted, but to have flat out taken their money and then lied to their faces.

But not all the paranormal investigators are withdrawing their support.  On the Poasttown Elementary Facebook group, I saw some who say they are confident in the evidence they found at the location, despite the recent allegations of fraud and trickery, and plan to continue investigating there.  Another stated that they will not allow one man (Aron Houdini, presumably) to act as judge and jury.

In a recent article I posted before Poasttown was exposed, I stated that the ghost hunters who have helped build the reputation of this location, largely through misguided, unscientific methods and a lack of skepticism, were just as much responsible for the hoax as were the caretakers.  If not for their lack of skepticism, this fraud would have been sniffed out long ago, and the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have paid to investigate there could have saved their money.

But I now go back to the question I asked to open this article.  If the ghost hunters who captured evidence or had paranormal experiences there (EVPs, EMF hits, creepy feelings, etc) are now admitting the location is a fraud and not haunted, what does that say about all the EVPs, EMF hits and creepy feelings they’ve gotten at any other location they’ve visited?  It’s a question they have to ask themselves, but I fear many will not.

The fact is that amateur ghost hunting teams copy their methods from television and have fooled themselves into believing they are acting scientifically.  They clearly do not know how to use their equipment, and seem to have very little idea about the natural means that explain EMF spikes and EVPs and, yes, even the creepy feelings.  Ghost hunters work backwards from a conclusion, going in believing there are ghosts present, then go about labeling any natural phenomena they can’t explain as proof of ghosts.  It is not scientific, it is not logical, and it is unfortunately all too common.

Aron Houdini

So what will become of Poasttown?  My guess is they will experience a fair amount of backlash for a short period, then things will pretty much go back to normal.  Many teams that have been there before will return, believing their old evidence to be legit.  And new groups will file in and out, finding what they wrongly believe to be evidence of ghosts as well.  The cycle will continue, if not at Poasttown, then at another location up the road.

Besides, does the fact that the people they trusted were fooling them all along really bother amateur paranormal investigators all that much?  The anger doesn’t seem to last long.  After all, TAPS was caught faking evidence on live television, and their ratings are as high as ever.

Thanks for reading.

The Cost of Not Being Skeptical: A Look at Haunts, Hoaxes and the Unscientific Ghost Hunters Who Help Create Them

Amateur paranormal investigators love to find what they consider to be evidence of ghosts at private residences and businesses all across the country.  EMF spikes, EVP, and a variety of creepy feelings and photographic anomalies all pass as proof positive of a haunting in their minds.  But what happens when they find out the location they deemed haunted had been pulling the wool over their eyes?  What do they do when they find out their haunt was hoaxed?

That’s a question some of these folks may have to start asking themselves if Aron Houdini has his way.  Houdini, a distant relative by marriage of the legendary magician; and a conjurer and escape artist in his own right, recently took to his Facebook page to announce that he had proof positive of a so-called haunted location faking paranormal phenomena.

Confessing that he had “seen it with (his) own eyes,” he accuses this as of yet unnamed location of “making things move,” and creating “noises, shadows, apparitions.”  Many of his friends and fans, ghost hunters themselves, offered their support and asked him to expose the location and its owners for their duplicitous ways.

Despite their alarmingly unscientific methods, many ghost hunters pride themselves in their pursuit of the truth, and in helping people understand the nature of the spirit world.  Though skeptics have long realized that the claimed “proof” of ghosts is really no more than proof they don’t know what they are doing, I think it’s fair to say that many ghost hunters have their hearts in the right place.  I also think it’s fair to say they have their heads up their rears, especially when it comes to situations like Aron Houdini is referring to.  The ghost hunters, it seems, consider themselves to be the victims in this ordeal.

Commenting on Aron’s Facebook page, Allen Dunski, lead investigator and tech manager for Wisconsin Paranormal Investigators said, “People pay good (money) to go to events and haunted locations to experience something, not to be made to look like a fool.”  Another ghost hunter going by the name of Blade Sighters wrote, “I would thank you for letting me know that I was fooled.  And as for the people that fooled me, well, we will leave it at that.”  Their comments were typical, though some were much more harsh.  What very few of them seemed to understand or want to admit, however, was that it was ghost hunters just like them ultimately responsible for the con continuing in the first place.

Solid scientific investigative techniques expose fraud.  Unscientific nonsensical methods people copy from television shows help perpetuate the fraud.  The fact is, these teams go into locations looking to find ghosts and anything they can’t immediately explain away becomes, in their mind, evidence of ghosts.  They go through the motions of what they consider to be an investigation, call the location haunted, and share their “evidence” with other people and teams in the paranormal community.  Those folks then check the location out for themselves, making the same mistakes the last group did.  More “proof” of ghosts is found and the legend grows.  Soon, the location is charging obscene amounts of money for ghost tours and renting the place out to would-be investigators.  It’s an ongoing cycle.  The hoaxers don’t even have to bother recreating the effects any longer.  The eager investigators are more than happy to find ghosts in blurry photographs, hear them in the white noise from their recordings, and feel them in the tingle up their spine.  All they need is a story to start them off and their lack of critical thinking will do the rest.

In my opinion, the ghost hunting groups who validate the hauntings are just as responsible, if not more so, than the locations engaging in fakery in the first place.  Their unscientific methodology and disregard for skepticism and critical thinking has helped propagate an innumerable amount of false hauntings across the country and around the world.  Who can say how many dollars hoaxed haunts have brought in with the help of testimonials from ignorant ghost hunters?  And how many clients have these same teams unwittingly misled into believing their homes were haunted by using the same techniques?  That’s the kind of stuff that keeps skeptics up at night.

So when Aron Houdini eventually announces the name of the location he caught faking paranormal phenomenon, how many of the ghost hunters who validated that haunting over the years will apologize?  How many will vow to stop investigating until they learn what they’re doing?  My guess:  few, if any.  And why?  Because they’re too busy playing victim to their own ignorance.

Thanks for reading.

A Picture of Paranormal Fraud

There is a paranormal group that goes by the name of Ghosts of New England Research Society.  G.O.N.E.R.S, for short.  Recently, they began publicizing a hoaxed ghost photo as authentic.  They have also been using the hoax, in part, to promote an episode of the Discovery Channel series “American Haunting” that they’ll be featured on this fall.

Understandably, this has gotten a number of people in the paranormal community up in arms.  Fraudulent ghost photos are something most investigators decry and, indeed, it was skeptical paranormal investigators themselves who spotted the fraud in the first place.


The photo, taken at Ryder’s on Main, a bar and restaurant in Meridan, CT shows the hazy silhouette of what G.O.N.E.R.S calls “The Holy Grail of Paranormal Research:  A Full Body apparition of what appears to be a women in 1920s-30s period attire…”  Of course, anyone familiar with famous ghost photos recognized this image as the well-documented “Madonna of Bachelor’s Grove” taken at the Chicago cemetery by members of the Ghost Research Society in the summer of 1991.  It had simply been superimposed on a photo taken inside Ryder’s on Main by way of photoshop or perhaps even a smartphone app.

Skeptical paranormal investigator Kenny Biddle who, in full disclosure, must also be noted as a contributor to The Bent Spoon, first spotted the forgery on Facebook, drawing attention to the striking similarities between the images and quickly swayed opinion.  While many on the thread were originally hyping it up as a great piece of evidence, they soon turned to castigating the paranormal team in question for using it to market themselves.


credit: Dale Kaczmarek

The story soon went viral and Ghosts of New England Research Society took the image down, apparently not commenting publicly on the matter.  Many in the paranormal community have taken this incident to be the prime example why paranormal investigation is not accepted by the scientific mainstream.  Even Brian Harnois, former cast member of the longest running fraudulent paranormal reality series on television, Ghost Hunters, said it is incidents like this that caused him to retire from the field.

In defense of G.O.N.E.R.S, it is unclear whether they hoaxed the photo themselves, or were duped by the bar/restaurant.  Either way, however, the paranormal team is culpable.  They should have known how famous the Bachelor’s Grove image is, for one.  Secondly, they should not have publicized and promoted the photo from Ryder’s on Main to get attention for their upcoming television exposure.  They fell into a trap they set themselves with their own ignorance.

But is this really the cause of paranormal investigation not being taken seriously by science?  Is fraud really the reason ghost hunters don’t get more credit from the scientific establishment?  I think not.  Fraud happens in science as well.  Things like peer review help eliminate it, something most paranormal enthusiasts don’t seem to use.  But even having examples of fraud throughout the history of science gives no one logical license to distrust the scientific process.  It has worked for hundreds of years.

No, the reason ghost hunters are not taken seriously by science is because they do not respect science.  Ghost hunters, by and large, have a fundamental misunderstanding of how to operate under proper scientific methodologies or even to control their experiments.  The evidence they put forth is not given credibility because it isn’t evidence.  At best, it is often just anomalies they found on their digital voice recorders or readings they took on their EMF meters.  Anomalies which, by the way, have been explained countless times by science-based investigators.

If there’s a lesson that can be learned from Ghosts of New England Research Society, it is this:  your photographs are not proof of ghosts.  But it can be proof that you don’t seem to know what you are doing.  So, if you want to be taken seriously by science, start taking science seriously and educate yourselves.


Blinded by the lies: Tracking Dannion Brinkley’s continued fabrications

This article originally appeared in the “Miracles” issue of The Bent Spoon.  To check out this free magazine, click here.

Dannion Brinkley tells a lot of tales to a lot of people.  Some of them are even true.  For instance, it is a fact that, in the early evening of September 17th 1975, he was struck by lightning while on the phone at his house.  But the stories that came out of that – the events related to his alleged out-of-body experience – are predicated upon a pack of lies.

In his book, “Saved By the Light,” Dannion recounts his story and embellishes upon the details.  He claims that he was dead for 28 minutes.  During this time, he floated above his body, watching as his wife attempted to revive him in the moments after the lightning strike.  He says he heard a paramedic pronounce him dead.  Later, he talks about traveling to heaven, where he met and spoke with angels, saw a crystal city and cathedral of light.  And then, he woke up in the hospital just before being taken to the morgue.

It is an incredible story; one that saw his book at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, as well as spawning a highly rated television movie.  Dannion has since used his notoriety to become a psychic, charging $250 for a half hour reading [1], and a spiritual advisor, lecturing to large groups of people around the world about the “secrets” he found in the light – secrets that you, too, can share – if only you can afford tickets at places like the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.  But if his story were true, we can reasonably expect that he would have told a similar one in the days following his injury.  But it’s not, because he didn’t.  In fact, he told a remarkably different story at the time, and continues to change the details to this day when confronted.

Carl Langley was a newspaper reporter for the Augusta Herald at the time of Dannion’s ordeal.  He interviewed him, and in the September 19th 1975 edition, published a story about the incident titled “Phone Call Almost Cost Him His Life.”  The story as Mr. Brinkley told it then is dramatically different than the one he tells now in his books and interviews [2].  Remember how Dannion said he was dead for 28 minutes, and the paramedic pronounced him dead?  Langley’s newspaper article says otherwise:

“Frantically, Mrs. Brinkley began pounding away on her husband’s chest, stopping only to grasp his tongue and pull it away from his windpipe so he could breathe.

“I was out for a few minutes, and she saved my life, “Danny said.  With breathing restored, Mrs. Brinkley called the paramedics.'”

How long did Dannion, or Danny as he was called then, say he was out for?  “A few minutes.”  Who saved his life?  His wife.  And it all happened before the paramedics even arrived!

But there’s more.  Remember, Dannion also tells people that he woke up in the hospital later, after having traveled to heaven and talking to angels.  But that is definitively contradicted by Dannion’s own doctor, who was interviewed by investigative journalist Jon Ronson in the film, “Reverend Death.”  Dr. Gilmore Eaves says he was at Dannion’s side within an hour of his brush with lightning.  Was Dannion terribly hurt?  Was he talking about his incredible Out-of-Body Experience?

“When I saw him he was completely lucid,” Dr. Eaves said.  He tells Ronson that he read stories later about how Dannion Brinkley had been pronounced dead and how he recalled a sheet being pulled over his head.  But as Dr. Eaves says, “That’s just not true.”  Nor did he ever tell him about seeing a light or seeing a cathedral.

In the film, Ronson actually goes to see Brinkley himself, showing him the article by Carl Langley in the Augusta Herald.  Brinkley laughs it off, explaining that he was young and embarrassed and, “wasn’t gonna start ranting and raving about a near-death experience.”  He states that it is true that his wife, by pounding on his chest, did bring him back to his body, but that then he left it again.  That is a dramatically different account; one that seems clearly invented on the fly after being cornered with his earlier statements [3].

But the film “Reverend Death” came out in 2008.  It is three years later now, and Dannion has had some time to make up a new version of what happened.  In a video posted on his website on May 18th of 2011, Dannion now claims to not remember much about the days of the events in question, which is funny since he has never had problems remembering in radio and television interviews before.  Dannion says now that he was paralyzed for “6 or 7 days,” and couldn’t talk.  So did Langley just invent the quotes in his article when he spoke with him the day after the lightning strike?  Did Dr. Eaves have an imaginary conversation with a “completely lucid” Dannion Brinkley at the hospital?  If Dannion’s newest story of not remembering details and being paralyzed and unable to talk is true, why didn’t he tell this to Ronson during the filming of “Reverend Death”?  It is a complete and total contradiction to give interviews to newspaper reporters that your wife saved you after a few minutes, then write books claiming you were dead for 28 minutes and spoke with angels, to then saying your wife did save you but then you left your body again immediately after, then saying you don’t remember the details, to then saying everyone else is lying about everything except you because, hey, you were paralyzed and couldn’t talk at the time.  It is also interesting that he has waited until after Mr. Langley and Dr. Eaves have passed away to say all this [4].

The truth is that Dannion Brinkley is a fraud.  He has invented a fictional story about an Out-of-Body experience to sell books.  He has given people false hope about heaven, angels, and crystal cities, and has made a fortune doing it.  That type of cruelty makes him among the worst people imaginable.  When confronted with his fictions, he changes his story or infers that everyone else is lying about what happened.

Dannion has since written two more books about two more near-death and out-of-body experiences he has had.  He claims to have been saved by the light, and to have found both peace and secrets in the light.  But the more he talks, and the more you look into his story, the more you’ll find yourself blinded – not by the light, but by his lies.