Scientific Paranormal Investigation
Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries
Author: Benjamin Radford
What is it like to travel the world investigating the paranormal? To not just sit back and wonder about the world’s famous unexplained mysteries, but actually go out and solve them? To investigate haunted houses, searching for evidence of ghosts and spirits? To search the world’s lakes for giant, fearsome monsters? To investigate and create the mysterious phenomena of crop circles? To talk to people who speak to the dead, solve crimes for police, or use ESP?
Scientific Paranormal Investigation is the first book to give the public an inside look at the life, methods, and work of a real-life scientific paranormal investigator. Author Benjamin Radford has investigated unexplained phenomena for over two decades, not just read or written about them, but actually gone out to see what’s there. Unlike most other books and reality TV shows on the supernatural or paranormal, Radford strictly adheres to scientific methods.
In a nutshell, Scientific Paranormal Investigation is the equivalent of The X-Files meets CSI: Crime Scene Investigations: applying scientific methods and principles to real-life mysteries, and coming up with explanations when it seems none are possible. Whether the subject is a crime scene or a haunted house, the questions are the same: What did eyewitnesses see? What does the evidence show? If the paranormal ghosts, psychics, or Bigfoot really exist, there should be valid scientific evidence for them. Scientific Paranormal Investigation draws from dozens of cases and mysteries, explaining step-by-step the science-based methods Radford used to solve them.
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Part I: Skepticism and the Paranormal
Chapter 1: Understanding the Paranormal and Skepticism
Chapter 2: The Psychology of the Paranormal
Part II: Conducting Scientific Paranormal Investigation
Chapter 3: Investigation Principles and Guidelines
Chapter 4: How Not to Investigate the Paranormal: Science and Pseudoscience in Ghost Investigations
Part III: Case Studies in Scientific Paranormal Investigation
Chapter 5: The Demonic Ghost House of Buffalo
Chapter 6: The Psychic and the Serial Killer: The “Best Case” for Psychics
Chapter 7: Riddle of the Crop Circles
Chapter 8: Ogopogo, the Bloodthirsty Lake Monster
Chapter 9: The Mysterious Santa Fe Courthouse Ghost
Chapter 10: The Amazing Lee B., Remote Viewer
Chapter 11: The Mysterious Pokémon Panic
Chapter 12: The White Witch of Rose Hall
Chapter 13: Slaying the Vampire: Solving the Chupacabra Mystery
Chapter 14: Conclusions and Further Reading
Scientific Paranormal Investigation is designed to be useful to a variety of people with different interests. First, for would-be paranormal investigators, those who have read about the world’s strange mysteries and want to try their hand at it, this is a “how to” guide for conducting successful scientific investigations into “unexplained” phenomenon. Interest in the paranormal has rarely been higher; top-rated TV shows feed the public’s interest in the supernatural. Millions of people watch paranormal-themed television shows on everything from ghosts to psychic detectives, monsters to crop circles, not realizing that they are seeing entertainment instead of actual investigation. (For a scientific analysis of the ghost hunting on such shows, see chapter 4, “How Not to Investigate the Paranormal: Science and Pseudoscience in Ghost Investigations.”) Reading this book won’t make you a scientific paranormal investigator, any more than reading a book on car repair makes you a mechanic. But it will give you insight into the process and a solid blueprint to work from.
For people with some knowledge of skepticism and an interest in the paranormal—but who don’t necessarily have the time, inclination, or ability to become a paranormal investigator themselves—the collection of illustrative case studies in this book will provide important background information on the topics. Being knowledgeable about solved cases can be very useful when discussing paranormal topics with skeptics and believers alike.
For the millions who have an interest in the paranormal but who are not necessarily familiar with what skeptics are or what they do, this book provides an understanding of skepticism and how science can be applied to modern mysteries and the paranormal. People are often surprised to learn that paranormal phenomena can be—and indeed has been—subjected to solid scientific analysis. Understanding skepticism will make you a better critical thinker. The principles of skepticism and investigation apply far beyond exotic topics like ghosts and monsters; they will help you spot logical fallacies and faulty arguments in all areas. The information and case studies here will give the other side of the story all too often missing from mystery-mongering, pro-paranormal books, shows, and magazine articles on the topics.
Many readers with no particular interest in investigation will find first-hand accounts of a wide variety of fascinating topics: psychic cats, bloodthirsty lake monsters, cruel voodoo witches, ghosts, ESP tests, and much more. Anyone with an interest in the bizarre and unexplained will find a treasure trove of mysteries—all examined from a credible, scientific point of view.
This book focuses on the practical aspects of applied skepticism. I have resisted the temptation to delve too deeply into the philosophy and history of skepticism. It’s important to understand the nature, scope, and context of skeptical investigation, but others have done a far superior job in discussing these matters than I could. There are wonderful books by the great philosophers of skepticism, from David Hume to Paul Kurtz, and those works appear in the extensive bibliography. I encourage interested readers to seek out the sources and references I provide, as well as the books in the recommended further reading sections.
I devote Chapter 2 to a discussion of the psychological aspects of the paranormal. My academic background in psychology has been of great benefit to me in my investigations, but I don’t have the space to fully go into all the perceptual and cognitive errors that contribute to belief in paranormal phenomena. For that, again, please consult the references and further reading lists.
Chapter 3 offers specific guidelines and strategies for investigating unexplained mysteries, while Chapter 4 gives examples from TV shows that show investigators what not to do!
Chapters 5 through 13 are in-depth case studies drawn from my dozen years of investigations, including ghosts, monsters, crop circles, psychics, and other strangeness. Each chapter explains how the case was investigated and solved, and ends with a follow-up section analyzing important principles used in the case.
I have been involved in hundreds of investigations over the years. Some cases were solved in a few hours by consulting references; others took months of research and preparation. A thorough background in science is helpful, but not necessary to be a knowledgeable skeptic. Many of the keys to understanding skepticism are accessible to the average person. These principles include understanding the basics of chance and randomness; understanding scientific methods; an appreciation of psychology (including how beliefs are formed, and how we fool others and ourselves); and the principles of critical thinking (Occam’s razor, logical fallacies, etc.). Many of the so-called soft sciences, such as linguistics and sociology, have made important contributions to skepticism. I can speak knowledgeably about skepticism, science, and many aspects of the paranormal, but I’m not a professional scientist. I do, however, have a solid understanding of how science works, and what makes good and bad science.
Throughout this book I share personal anecdotes. This is inevitable, as my skepticism is an ingrained characteristic, a guide for living. It is not simply a set of principles I pull out of a bag when it comes time to play Sherlock Holmes or Fox Mulder. Investigation is a personal enterprise, and trying to separate out the personal from the professional is not only pointless but counterproductive. (One of the most popular and powerful columns in Skeptical Inquirer magazine that Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Senior Research Fellow Joe Nickell ever wrote was a personal story about intuition, and how it united him with a long-lost daughter.)
In some ways anecdotes are a bane of investigators, for they are not evidence. In this book the anecdotes are offered not as evidence but as examples. Personal, concrete examples illustrating a principle are much more easily learned and remembered than generic guidelines, so I hope the reader will pardon any digressions.
There are thousands of people in the world who call themselves paranormal investigators, ghost hunters, or something similar. Paranormal investigation requires no certificate; anyone can do it with no training, knowledge, or expertise whatsoever. Whether they are effective or not—actually solve any mysteries—is another matter entirely.
There are even some “paranormal investigation” handbooks claiming to instruct readers on how to look into ghosts and the supernatural. The problem is that, with a few exceptions, none of the authors have any background in logic, investigation, or science. They may be writers, but they do little or no actual investigation. Merely collecting ghost stories or Bigfoot reports is not investigation. In short, most “experts” on the paranormal have little if any credibility; they are simply folks who have an interest in the topics and decided to write books that mostly ignore the skeptical, rational explanations in favor of mystery-mongering. Readers should research the author(s) to evaluate their credibility and history of successful investigation and solved mysteries. If you are going to buy a book or take a course on paranormal investigation, you deserve to have an author or instructor who knows what he or she is talking about.
Many people who are interested in the paranormal believe that one method of investigation is as good as another, that there is no “correct” way to investigate the unexplained. According to authors Marley Gibson, Dave Schrader, and Patrick Burns in their 2009 book The Other Side: A Teen’s Guide to Ghost Hunting and the Paranormal, “There are a multitude of paranormal investigators with differing philosophies on how to investigate. No one can truly say that his or her methods are better than anyone else’s” (p. ix). Christopher Moon, editor-in-chief of Haunted Times magazine, agrees, writing in 2010 that “if ghosts/aliens/vampires and the occasional bizarre creature haven’t been proven to exist, then how can we say who is going about investigating it the right or wrong way? Simply put, we can’t.”
Of course we can.
If the goal of investigation is to understand an unexplained phenomenon, then the methods that produce information solving the mystery are the right ones; the methods that do not help solve the mystery are the wrong ones. It’s as simple as that.
The idea that there is no right or wrong way to investigate a phenomenon (even a supposedly paranormal one) is simply wrong. Paranormal subjects are investigated just like any other subject: through critical thinking, evidence analysis, logic, and scientific methodologies. Of course, some methods of investigation are better than others. The best way to approach investigation is the same one that professional investigators and detectives use everyday: the scientific method.
Police detectives and crime scene investigators, for example, use time-tested, proven techniques and methods to solve crimes. Let’s say, for example, police are called to investigate a burglary. There are many different methods that detectives could potentially use to solve the crime. Police could consult a local psychic to identify the criminal, or they might simply wait for the criminal to turn himself in. Another way would be to carefully search for and scientifically examine evidence at the scene for fingerprints or DNA evidence. Any of these methods could theoretically solve the case, but only one way—methodical, scientific investigation—has proven useful in solving crimes and mysteries.
What gives me any credibility? It’s a fair question, and there are several answers. The first is that I have a background in both science and psychology. The former grounds me in the scientific methods and logic; the latter gives me expertise in the psychological processes that underlie reports of nearly all “unexplained phenomenon.” The second is my background as an investigator with the non-profit educational organization The Committee for Scientific Inquiry, founded by top scientists such as Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov. I have also served as managing editor for the science magazine Skeptical Inquirer since 1998. Third, I engage in actual research and field work, not armchair debunking, with over a decade of personal experience investigating everything from miracles to crop circles to psychics and lake monsters. Unlike well-meaning amateurs, investigating the paranormal is not a hobby or lark for me; it is a career.
Perhaps most importantly, the results speak for themselves. I have solved dozens of mysteries using these methods and techniques, many of them described in this book. The fact that these mysteries have been solved—when most investigations using other “equally valid” techniques remain unsolved—is proof enough that yes, indeed, some investigation methods are far better than others.
I have a long, documented track record of solving mysteries, reported by National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, the Learning Channel, ABC News, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, USA Today, CNN, CBS, CBC, BBC, and other news organizations with three letters. I must be doing something right, because “unexplained” mysteries I investigate keep getting solved. The methods and strategies I use and discuss here have proven themselves time and again. I like to joke that I’m not afraid of ghosts; they’re afraid of me, because they disappear when I investigate.
Being a scientific paranormal investigator is a curious profession. Outside the bubble it’s sometimes easy to forget that not everyone spends their days looking into unexplained phenomenon. It’s a fascinating, wonderful, and frustrating job that presents its own unique set of challenges. I hope you enjoy my take on it.