Are EMF meters BS? (researching EMFs and the paranormal)

an animated sketch of a K2 meter

Listen, I've had a real bee in my bonnet about EMFs, or electromagnetic fields, lately (read: the last 6 months or so). Like a lot of "scientific" paranormal investigation metrics, EMFs get talked about an awful lot. And while I wouldn't say that I "did" "well" in high school physics class, even I can smell a whiff of pseudoscience and unsubstantiated information when it comes to EMFs.

"Scientific" claims without the actual science

I don't believe that high strangeness needs to be "proved" by science. I'm happy to accept tales of personal experience and unexplainable oddities.

But if folks insist on making scientific claims about the paranormal, then I do expect there to be, you know, actual science behind them.

I understand that in the world of paranormal investigation, EMF fluctuations are considered a possible sign of unseen paranormal activity. But . . . why? What (actually scientific, non-anecdotal) evidence supports that? I haven't found anything that's explained it to me convincingly yet, but I've decided to dig a bit deeper.

Learning in public

This year, I've been trying to better understand paranormal investigation gadgets. Aside from the spirit box, which I have dug into, in the past I've mostly dismissed paranormal investigation tools as expensive toys that are a "nice to have" but not necessary. I still stand by that, for the most part. But my curiosity's gotten the best of me, and I've become very interested in how different tools work, to the point of trying to figure out how to make themand understand the science is behind them.

Also, if you've been following this blog for a while, you may know that I'm slightly fixated on the claims that paranormal investigators make about environmental and atmospheric factors in hauntings, UFO sightings, and other high strangeness. I love studying patterns, and the subject really scratches that itch.

So my dip into learning more about EMFs and the paranormal is mostly motivated by those two things. Those, and my inability to keep myself from questioning assertions that I don't understand. (As you might imagine, the priest at my childhood church got very annoyed with me, because when I was a teenager, I asked too many probing questions about bits of the Bible that I felt made no sense.)

Right now, I'm just trying to get a lay of the land when it comes to EMFs, collecting the EMF-related claims that I come across and putting a pin in them to return to later. But I want to do more research, because nothing bothers me more than a claim being repeated ad nauseum without proof that it's more than an urban legend.

As usual, I'll be writing up bits of research and thoughts as I dig in, since this blog is all about learning in public.

Also, I suppose it's worth mentioning that I have absolutely repeated inaccurate claims related to EMFs without actually understanding the logic (or lack of logic) behind them. In this research, I'm not trying to disprove any particular person or say that I'm above parroting pseudoscience. I'm just attempting to educate myself.

What are EMFs?

In the paranormal, there's a range of popular knowledge about EMFs. There're people who seem to see them as "ghost detectors" (I assume because they've been marketed and used in TV shows that way). Other folks understand that EMF meters are unreliable at best, because electronic devices create EMFs, so the meter is more likely to detect a gadget than a ghost. And then I can only assume that there are people in the paranormal (electricians? electrical engineers? physicists?) with the technical training to understand EMFs on a deeper level.

Within that middle group of people—folks with some basic understanding that EMFs are emitted by electrical devices and aren't "ghost detectors"—EMFs are usually described as fields emitted by electrical wires and devices. That's because popular EMF detectors like the K2 meter only detect EMFs with very low frequencies. But I was surprised to learn that the EMF spectrum is actually way wider than that, including medium and higher-frequency EMFs like infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays, all the way up to nuclear power.

So it seems that it wouldn't be inaccurate to describe, say, a will-o-the-wisp as an EMF anomaly (since it's visible light), even though it's something that you detect with your eyes rather than with a K2 meter. Likewise, John Keel wrote about UFOs moving in and out of the visible light spectrum. In Operation Trojan Horse, he claimed that "the many cases of skin burn and conjunctivitis following nighttime UFO sightings give absolute proof that ultraviolet waves are radiating from some of the objects." So that's all very interesting, and fits under the umbrella of paranormal EMFs.

Beliefs about EMFs

There're some strange claims out there about EMFs.

Let's start with a paranormal one. There's a common belief that EMF detectors can be used to rule out paranormal anomalies. The theory is that supposedly EMFs can make people feel uncomfortable to the extent that they might feel "haunted" even though nothing paranormal is afoot.

Earlier this year, I dug through hundreds of scientific papers, trying to find evidence for that theory.

Boy howdy, that's a tricky rabbit hole to try to navigate. There are many, many claims floating around the internet talking about how EMF exposure is "unhealthy." Plenty of websites urge people to "protect" themselves against EMFs—and then try to sell people items to "help" mitigate EMF exposure. (Veering right into tin-foil-hat territory.)

I think that the claim that EMFs cause discomfort stems from that much-studied, still-unproven theory that low-frequency EMFs are bad for you. Since there isn't solid evidence about the dangers of low-frequency EMFs—and certainly none that relate to feeling "uneasy"—then that's worth talking about. Because as much as I'm drawn to this quasi-debunking idea, if it's based on inaccurate data (or no data), then more people should be aware of that.

Many of the scientific papers I found about EMFs were about determining whether some people have, as they claim, sensitivity to EMFs. And the answer seemed to be, generally . . . not really. That being said, I'm not here to try to disprove anyone's personal experience—I know that plenty of people have anomalous medical conditions that science claims isn't "real." That's not what I'm looking at here.

My biggest questions

What I want to know is—setting aside some folks' experiences of EMF sensitivity—does the average person experience discomfort around EMFs, to the extent that it might make them feel "haunted"? Or is this just an urban legend that has stemmed from the discourse about some folks' experiences of possible EMF sensitivity?

And, beyond that: Why does the world of paranormal investigation put so much stock in EMFs? Is it just because the colorful LEDs of a K2 meter look so damn good lit up in a dark room that the paranormal investigation TV shows started using them, and then it spread from there? Or is there a solid scientific reason behind it?

I'm not a scientist—not even close—but those last two paragraphs are my hypothesis. They're phrased in the form of questions because I'm from the south and find it extremely difficult to suggest that someone else might be wrong. But I think you get the drift. I want to find something that convinces me that monitoring low-frequency EMFs can tell us something about the paranormal. But I doubt that I will.