Entertainment/culture Friday Woo Paranormal Pseudoscience Religion Skepticism/critical thinking Television

Your Friday Dose of Woo: Orbs invade the 11 PM news broadcast

Sometimes woo jumps out and hits you from sources from which you least expect it.

Such was the case earlier this week, when I found my self in Detroit lazily watching a local newscast. Now, I realize that local news is not the place to look for skepticism. Heck, just the other day, I mentioned a really egregious example of a newscast from Oklahoma City that credulously regurgitated Generation Rescue talking points as fact. But it’s rare in my experience to see such a sterling example of woo appearing in a major market newscast. So there I was, sitting in front of the TV, when I saw a story come on entitled Orbs: Myth or Real? The leadup to the story made it clear that it was a story in which it was being claimed that “orbs” appearing in photographs represent the spirits of the dead being captured on film (or on digital media), with one of the newscasters even asking the question at the beginning of the newscast, “Could they really be a spirit from the afterlife captured in your photo?”

Wow. This was serious woo. Watch the video and then we’ll talk. (Sorry, but there was no way to embed it.)

The video starts out with reporter Ama Daetz in a cemetery at night telling how people come to cemeteries at night hoping to capture images of orbs. She then cues to a description of an unfortunate family dealing with the death of their 17-year-old daughter. This is indeed a tragic event, but, as tragic as it is, that is not an excuse to be so open-minded that your brains fall out. It’s understandable that a family that’s suffered such a tragedy might be prone to magical thinking, but I find it more than a little ghoulish for a reporter to take advantage of such a family in order to promote pseudoscience.

The next part of the story shows a bunch of photographs with obvious flecks of dust on the lens or on out-of-focus something in the photo, and it’s claimed that these orbs represent the spirit of the young girl, Ashleigh, who died. One photo, in which an orb is seen in front of the head of her brother, who is holding balloons, is shown, but, oddly enough, no one mentions the other orb clearly seen in front of the purple balloon. In fact, I count at least three, if not four, orbs in the photo. It must be a veritable ghost convention there! Through it all, the reporter says things like, “Many people believe that an orb is the energy of a spirit, a soul” and marvels at how these orbs were in so many pictures.

Ama, even die hard ghost hunters dismiss most orbs as being artifacts of photography! Really! Orbs are soooo 1980s–or even 1970s. Ghosthunters have moved on.

The very best part of the story comes when our hapless reporter Ama goes to the University of Google and points out that a Google search on orbs will return many hits. This is indeed true. Just Google the word “orbs,” and literally millions of hits will return, the first of which (at least last night) was this one, which starts out:

What are these balls of transparent light we find in photos taken in allegedly haunted places? I won’t tell you I know the answer to this question. No one has the true answer to this question yet, but that’s part of the job of researchers and investigator.

One of the leading theories concerning what orbs are and the one that I lean towards the most is that they are not the spirit at all. The orb is the energy being transferred from a source (i.e. powerlines, heat energy, batteries, people, etc) to the spirit so they can manifest. This may not even be a conscious thing the spirit is doing, just a natural way they get their energy. This would explain why the orbs are round balls. According to the laws of Physics energy being transferring like that would assume is natural shape of a sphere. This theory can also be tied into the EMF readings we get during spirit activity.

Great research, Ama! Awesome woo, too! In fact, here are a few more hits on “orbs” that I found on the first page of a quick Google search:

  1. What are orbs?
  2. Orb (paranormal), Wikipedia entry
  3. What are Ghosts & Orbs?
  4. “Orbs” Debunked! (If you read this entry, you’ll see that its writer believes in ghosts and thinks that some orbs are truly paranormal.)
  5. Natural Environmental Orbs vs. Spirit/Ghost/Soul Orbs
  6. Orb Photos (This is a great one!)
  8. Orbs–Conscious Life Forms from Other Dimensions?

Personally, I’m still looking for conscious life forms in this dimension, myself included. Could orbs be the answer?

Whatever the case, the Google hits on the first page are certainly a lot of concentrated woo. I particularly like this particular page: Snow heart-shaped beings. Take a look at some examples of snow orbs that this woo-meister thinks to be beings or ghosts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Folks, it doesn’t get much more credulous than this! Apparently the concepts of motion artifacts, reflections, and two snowflakes superimposed on each other escape this particular woo-meister.

Given what came up on Google, though, it’s no wonder Ama credulously lapped up this story, even going to find Crystal Kempter, an “orb hunter.” (How’d you like that as your job description? “What do you do, M’am?” “I hunt orbs.” “Okaaaay,” backing away.) “But, but, but…” I hear people saying. Ama also went to a photography expert! And so she did. She went to an Associate Professor in Photography at Wayne State University, even. Unfortunately, this faculty member, named Marilyn Zimmerman, didn’t exactly live up to her faculty profile:

She is an artist, critical thinker, and post modern feminist whose work ranges from autobiographical family portraits to collaborative community installations to the Woodward Rephotographic Project. Her work has been exhibited widely, with inclusion in national and international collections, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England.

I meant the critical thinker part, obviously. I have no idea if she lives up to the postmodern part, although I suspect she does based on her comments. She starts out fairly reasonably: “The explanation for it is a flash or an ambient light reflecting off of a dust particle, an insect, a snowflake.”

So far, so good, but then Zimmerman continues: “I can only explain it so far with fact, and at some point you have to entertain the invisible.”

Well, I guess Zimmerman does live up to being postmodern. But what does she say about the photos put in front of her?

“These are truly orbs. I could explain these away photographically. I have to say…I don’t know the source of these.”

So much for being a critical thinker. Of course, I do have to allow for the possibility that Zimmerman was a victim of the all-too-common media technique of taking really brief soundbites out of much longer interview, kind of like the way the producers of Expelled! appear to have done with biologists such as P.Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins. At least, I hope that was the case. If that’s not the case, though, it is disturbing to see someone claiming to be a critical thinker saying stuff like this. Woo reigns supreme, I guess. Ama would have been better served to contact a scientist at a camera or film company like Canon, Kodak, or Fuji.

So what is the story with these orbs? One thing I could never understand is why a normal camera would pick up something that the human eye can’t see. As Skeptico put it so well three years ago, common cameras photographing using visible light generally pick up less than the human eye can see, as is obvious when a camera flash fails to go off in low light. Cameras also capture much less dynamic range than the human eye as well. It makes no sense at all that a normal, unremarkable camera would capture images of things that could not be seen by the human eye. Indeed, there’s nothing mysterious about orbs and orb photos are actually quite easy to produce. Benjamin Radford points out that the easiest way to produce orbs is to take a flash photograph at night in the rain. Unnoticed shiny surfaces reflecting back are also common sources, as are insects, bits of dust, strange refractions through the camera lens, and a number of other non-paranormal sources.

What this story goes to show is that woo can attack you when you least expect it. Here, I had been expecting just a newscast with the usual boring stuff like the 2008 election or various local crime news, but what I got was a dose of seriously concentrated orb woo. Thank heaven, God, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster for intrepid reporters like Ama Daetz, who not only delve deeply into the University of Google but find paranormal orb hunters and a skeptic who really isn’t, all in the service of taking the grief of a mother who’s lost her daughter and using it for a truly inane news report. People, this report was 3:45 minutes long, which is an eternity for an 11 PM newscast.

But it’s more than that. At the end of the report, Ama promises another report at 6:45 AM the next morning that “delves more deeply” into orb hunting. I haven’t yet been able to find that video. I don’t know if that’s a blessing or a curse. After all, that 3:45 of TV time during the 11 PM newscast was some of the most concentrated woo I’ve ever seen. Could I really stand to subject myself to more?

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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