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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Friday, October 3, 2014

Debunking the Orb Debunkers, Part 2: The Dust Theory

Orbs are strange circular features that have been showing up in flash photographs around the world since the invention of the digital camera. Some people think that orbs are evidence of a paranormal phenomena (which need not necessarily be a spiritual one, since there are also other possibilities such as undiscovered energy effects and “mind over energy” effects). Other people have attempted to debunk such thinking by offering mundane natural explanations for orbs.

The two main theories to naturally explain orbs are a reflection theory and an “orb zone” theory maintaining that orbs are caused by tiny specks of dust very near the camera. In my previous post I showed why the reflection theory is not a suitable explanation for orbs, and can explain few cases other than obvious cases such as an orb showing up over a mirror or a window. In this post I will discuss the dust explanation for orbs, and explain why it is bunk – a type of “junk explanation” that cannot hold up to serious scrutiny.

The dust explanation for orbs is sometimes called the “orb zone” theory. It is the theory that orbs are caused by little specks of dust floating a few inches in front of the camera lens. The theory is that the camera flash reflects off of these little specks of dust, causing an orb image to appear. This “orb zone” theory has been promoted on the internet by skeptics.

A few of the many problems with the “orb zone” theory are illustrated in the flowchart below.

orb zone

One key question to consider is: if orbs are caused by dust, then is it true that ordinary air has enough dust so that orbs will appear in photos taken in such air?

It's very hard to believe that this could be true. For one thing, most dust settles within a few minutes. If ordinary air had enough dust to produce orbs in photos, it would seem that our air would be so dusty that it would create all kinds of health and respiratory problems we don't observe. But let's consider for the moment the possibility that ordinary air does have enough dust particles to create orbs in pictures. What would be the consequences of that? The consequences would be that orbs would show up all the time in our photos. But that is not the case. Orbs show only up in less than 1% of all photographs taken in ordinary air by people who aren't looking to photograph orbs. So it seems that ordinary air does not have enough dust for orbs to show up in pictures.

But let's imagine the other possibility: that dust is the main cause of orbs, but only in cases where photos are taken in dusty air. What is the consequence of that idea? One consequence is that orbs should not show up in dry air that is not dusty. But that is not the case. Many thousands of orb photographs have been taken in dry air that is not dusty. I know of one investigator who often gets unexplained orb photos in a room with dry air that has been electronically measured to be very dust-free, a room with closed windows in which a powerful air filter has been running for hours.

So as my flowchart shows, regardless of which “orb zone theory” variation one chooses (in regard to whether orbs will show up in photos taken in ordinary air), one ends up with a false prediction that is contrary to the facts. Moreover, both variations lead to a second false conclusion in regard to multiple photographs taken in a short time interval at the same place. Regardless of whether the air is very dusty, if dust is producing orbs in photos, then if you take several photos at the same time at the same place with the same camera angle, then either none of them should have orbs, or most of them (or all) should have orbs. One reason is that dust takes a few minutes to settle.

For example, if dust is hanging around in the air producing orbs in photos, we should not at all see any sequence such as this (all made within 18 seconds, when there is no change in the camera position):

12:01:35 PM facing the north wall: no orbs.
12:01:38 PM facing the north wall: no orbs.
12:01:41 PM facing the north wall: no orbs.
12:01:44 PM facing the north wall: three orbs.
12:01:47 PM facing the north wall: no orbs.
12:01:50 PM facing the north wall: no orbs.
12:01:53 PM facing the north wall: no orbs.

But, in fact, sequences like this do routinely happen for people who are deliberately trying to take orb photographs (and also people who are surprised to see orbs in their photos).

Another prediction that follows from the orb zone theory is that orbs should show up in photographs whenever the dust level rises greatly. This is another false prediction. I tested it myself, by raising lots of dust while vacuuming, and determining that the dust level had been raised by more than a factor of 15 times. I immediately took quite a few photos, and saw no orbs. I also did a Google image search for “dust storm,” and looked through more than 300 photos of dust storms, very many of them taken at ground level in the middle of the dust storm. None of them seemed to show any orbs.

Still another reason why the “orbs are dust” theory is bunk is that dust is not a highly reflective material. Water is fairly reflective, but dust is not. Imagine one of those apocalyptic movie scenes that shows a mirror covered with dust. Does the dust on the mirror reflect an actor's face before the actor scrapes off the dust? Of course not.

Yet another reason why the “orbs are dust” theory is bunk is that it is unable to account for anomalous orbs that appear in different colors. I know of an orb photographer who routinely gets white, peach, and blue orbs in his photographs. That can't be explained by dust, for whoever heard of blue-colored dust or peach-colored dust?  See the photo at the bottom of this post for a photo of two bright orange orbs.

Still another reason why the “orbs are dust” theory is bunk is that it is unable to account for orbs that seem to be in motion. These type of photos are much less common than regular orbs, but still are not very rare (as you can see by doing a Google image search for "moving orbs.") An example of such an orb is below (lots of other similar photos show even more dramatic movement):

moving orb

An even more dramatic example is shown below:

moving orb


Photographers call this particular effect "ghosting," and it is caused when you take a photo of a very rapidly moving object, so that the object appears more than once in the photo. But that's a problem for the "orbs are dust" theory, since we know dust doesn't move rapidly (except in very heavy winds).

It is very amusing to see how the “orbs are dust” theorists try to explain such photos. On this page, the suggestion is made that such photos are probably caused by insects in front of the camera. So if I get a photo with one circular white orb, it's just dust, but if I get a photo showing the same type of orb rapidly moving, then it's an insect? That's hilarious – given that an insect in front of a camera would look nothing like a dust speck in front of a camera, and the fact that these photos of seemingly moving orbs are often produced indoors and in winter, in places and in times when insects are not a credible explanation. This type of “dust or insect” reasoning is no more credible than saying, “UFOs are swamp gas, except if they're moving fast, in which case they're ball lightning.” I defy anyone to produce an actual known photograph of a moving insect that looks anything like either of the photos shown above. Quite impossible, because insects such as a common housefly move at a maximum speed of only about 5 miles an hour, many times too slow to produce an effect like the one above when photographed with any camera with a decent shutter speed. 

Another reason why the "orbs are dust" theory (sometimes called the orb zone theory) is bunk is that the theory cannot account for orbs that appear as a fraction of the original picture size greater than 10%. The orb zone theory maintains that orbs are caused by tiny particles too small to be seen with the eye, and such tiny particles should never appear as objects appearing as larger than 10% of the total photo width or height (according to orb zone theorists themselves). However, orb photographers do actually photograph orbs as large as 18% of the total photo width.   

In short the “orbs are dust” theory (sometimes called the orb zone theory) is pure bunk which simply does not fit the facts -- a "tattered tissue" type of theory lazily advanced out of explanatory desperation. Most of the more interesting anomalous-seeming orbs that have been produced in photographs are not caused by dust.

Can we explain most such orbs by assuming that they are flash reflections from water vapor? No, because while it is true that some orbs can be explained by such a theory, it is a fact that many seemingly anomalous orb photos have been taken under dry outdoor conditions and dry indoor conditions.

There is one experiment that has been done by the proponents of the orb zone theory, an experiment which they claim backs up their theory. In my next and last post in this three part series, I will show that this claim is also bunk. 

Postscript:  A good analogy I can give is: saying that dust is a general explanation for orbs in photos is like saying that steam is a general explanation for ghost sightings. If you take many, many photos around a spot where there is lots of boiling water, you can probably get before long a photo that looks a little like a ghost (kind of a poor man's ghost photo). But to submit steam as a general explanation for ghosts is ridiculous. Similarly, if one takes many photos around places that are very, very dusty, you can get a kind "of poor man's orb," something that looks a little like orbs that appear in photographs (although not the more interesting ones). But to imply that dust is a general explanation for orbs is inappropriate (if only because too many photographs taken in non-dusty places show orbs unlike any that can be reproduced by taking pictures in very dusty places). 

Post-postscript: As for the explanation of insects used to explain away photos that seem to show fast-moving orbs (like the photo above), the link here discusses experiments in which hundreds of photographs were taken of flying insects near the camera, including gnats. It says, "No evidence was found that photographing insects could produce ‘orbs.’"

Post-post-postscript: In the visual below, we see two observation patterns, Pattern 1 (at top) and Pattern 2 (at bottom). If the orb zone theory were a good explanation for orbs, and orbs are just dust, orb photographers would typically report a pattern like Pattern 1 when taking a rapid series of photographs from a particular angle at a particular place. When dust was raised, the number of orbs appearing in a photograph would peak; and then the number of orbs appearing in a photograph would steadily decline, as the dust settled. But such a pattern is not what is reported by orb photographers. They instead report a pattern like Pattern 2, in which a rapid series of photos at a particular place intermittently shows orbs, with typically zero orbs appearing before and after a photo that showed orbs. Such a pattern cannot be explained under the orb zone theory that orbs are just dust.


Post-post-post-postscript: The visual below helps illustrate the weakness of the "orbs are dust" theory. It shows an example of clean-air orbs that are much bigger, much brighter, or more colorful than the dull, small, and colorless circles that show up sometimes in heavy dust.  All three photos were taken indoors with a flash, and all three took up the same portion of the full photos from which they were cropped, which were all the same size and resolution.


orb zone theory