Caught Between the Possible and the Paranormal

by | Jul 21, 2019 | Benjamin Radford, Investigation | 0 comments


I’ve often been asked if, in the course of my research into myriad mysteries and seemingly paranormal events, I’ve ever encountered something I couldn’t explain. It’s a fair and understandable question, but one that’s difficult to answer. There are several responses: a concise one (which can easily come off as arrogant), and a more nuanced one.  

The short answer is no, I haven’t really found any hard evidence of any paranormal claims, or anything I didn’t sincerely believe likely had a mundane explanation based on the evidence. There are certainly times when, during the course of an investigation, some aspect of a phenomenon wasn’t understood or explained. I’ve been temporarily stumped by specific claims on some cases, but in the end I figured them out. One example appeared my investigation into a haunted house in Buffalo, New York (for details see chapter 5 in my book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries). I had investigated—and solved—most of the “haunting” phenomena, with the exception of perhaps the most baffling one: a man who claimed he’d been physically attacked by a ghost. I was eventually able to solve the mystery and determine what had happened to him, but if not for a lucky coincidence (I mentioned the case to a friend’s wife, who recognized the cause in her husband) it might have remained a mystery. 

I tend to choose the best cases to investigate, ones that have good evidence available for them. I don’t want to waste my time focusing on flimsy or insignificant cases. There’s a positive correlation between the quality of the available evidence and solving the mystery; just like in crime scenes, the more evidence an investigator has, the more likely the case will be solved. Take a homicide, for example: If a victim is found in a rural area months or years after his death, the evidence will have greatly degraded due to predators, environmental exposure, and so on. If the victim is instead found within minutes in an urban area, there is a far greater likelihood of solving the crime, with many potential eyewitnesses, cameras, a fresh corpse, easily established cause of death, and so on. The quality and quantity of the evidence is often the key difference between a solved case and an unsolved one—not because some deaths are “unexplainable” or inherently unsolvable. 

My time is better spent investigating a famous lake monster photograph, or researching the “best case” for psychic detectives (see “The Psychic and the Serial Killer: Examining the ‘Best Case’ for Psychic Detectives,” Skeptical InquirerMarch/April 2010), for example, than digging into an unknown, ambiguous case with little external relevance (“I was camping alone in the Rocky Mountains in the summer of 1983 and saw a strange yellow light shoot up into the night sky and fly away… can you explain it?”). After all, if the best evidence can be plausibly solved through careful investigation, what does that say about mysteries with poorer evidence? 

Picking cases with adequate evidence should not be confused with choosing the “easy” cases. Doing real investigation into seemingly mysterious phenomena takes time, preparation, effort, and sometimes a significant amount of money. Some investigations I’ve done have only taken a few minutes, while others take days or even weeks. A few have taken months, and a handful—such as my chupacabra research—have taken years. Often a mystery remains unsolved for the simple reason that researchers don’t put in the time and effort required to find solutions. If you give up before you find the answer (or barely bother to look because you’re convinced of a supernatural explanation ahead of investigation), then of course the “unexplained” will remain so.

Being a successful investigator of mysteries, whether seemingly normal or paranormal, is—in my case, anyway—less a matter of brilliance or investigative acumen than persistence. It’s finding approaches to gathering and analyzing evidence long after most amateur ghost hunters or paranormal investigators have gotten bored or given up. Skeptical investigators make a comprehensive list of possible explanations and carefully examine the evidence to rule them out one at a time, beginning with the most likely. Some explanations can be dismissed immediately because of the circumstances, while others may take significant research (interviews, archival reviews, experiments, etc.) to determine their viability. Because most non-scientific investigators don’t trouble themselves with thoroughly exploring alternative hypotheses, their “investigations” are often superficial and summary, thus resulting in a mystery being deemed “unexplained” or “paranormal.” 

For example if an empty rocking chair is seen on camera moving slightly in a supposedly haunted location and a ghost hunter assumes it’s either a hoax, a ghost, or an unseen breeze, then a few quick examinations could pretty quickly rule out a hoax (video cameras show no one was in the house) or a breeze (all doors and windows were shut and locked), leaving an unseen spirit assumed to be the responsible party. However a science-based investigator might consider these and other explanations as well: perhaps the chair was not in fact moving but merely appeared to be, as an artifact of low-resolution, low-light camera, or moving shadows; perhaps vibrations from a heavy truck on a road outside caused the movement, and so on; the specifics would depend on the circumstances. If you can only think of one or two possibilities (or ways to investigate those explanations), then once you’ve exhausted those you’re likely to call it “unexplained.”

Because the variety of investigative techniques are limited by the researcher’s knowledge and resources, those who have significant experience and follow scientific methods are more likely to find solutions and thus solve mysteries than those who do not. Like any other toolkit, the more tools you have (mostly in the form of scientific principles), the better able you will be to fix a problem or find a solution. In real-world investigations information is often incomplete or fragmentary, for many reasons: eyewitnesses can be mistaken, records can be lost, forgeries can go undetected, etc. There is often no way to know with absolute certainty what happened in any event; even videotaped recordings can be hotly debated and offer polarized interpretations. Science does not operate on certainties, but instead on what fits the facts, what is most likely and probable. Most ghost hunters and paranormal investigators, on the other hand, are under no such evidentiary constraints. 

As a skeptical investigator who often employs Occam’s Razor to whittle claims down to size I have a high bar for what I am willing to concede is “unexplained” or truly mysterious. It’s not that I have a vested interest or deep personal investment in empiricism, materialism—or what might dismissively be called scientism—in refusing to acknowledge some unknown event, but instead that I’ve spent two decades learning about potential paranormal doppelgangers and the ways in which we can be fooled (and how we fool ourselves). We must first plausibly eliminate those alternative explanations before accepting supernatural ones. It would take just one recovered Bigfoot body, a single extraterrestrial crash in Manhattan, or a verified case of a psychic leading police to a missing kidnapping victim to offer strong evidence. Nothing would please me more than to prove to astonished scientists that ghosts exist or that blood-sucking chupacabras lurk in rural Puerto Rico. Perhaps one day these and other “unexplained” topics will be scientifically verified, but until then I can’t honestly say I’m stumped. 


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