This past March, I registered for a seminar on Scientific Paranormal Investigation at CFI – Washington, DC. Ben Radford was presenting and the event description mentioned his upcoming book of the same name. This was fortuitous since I was working on developing a thesis project about the prevalence of sham inquiry, focusing on amateur investigation groups, such as Bigfoot, UFO and ghost hunters. Sadly, I missed the event because of the death of my grandmother.
As my thesis idea gelled, I realized Ben’s new book would be a must-have for my references. So, I purchased it directly from his website (www.radfordbooks.com) as soon as it was announced, before it even made it to Amazon. He noted in the inscription that I was his first order.
This unique volume includes so much about the topics on which I’m focused for my project -laypersons conducting investigations into paranormal activities and what it means to be “scientific”. I wondered how this book would compare with Missing Pieces by Baker and Nickell. It’s different in content, focus and scope. For starters, at this point in time, there has never been so many paranormal investigation groups. Thanks to the internet and television, these groups number over a thousand on any given day in the U.S. alone. Millions of people view Ghost Hunters on television and think that’s an example of how scientific investigation is done. It’s a timely topic.
Ben is in a different situation than most folks participating in amateur groups. Affiliated with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer (as managing editor), he is actively sought for these investigations. Radford lays it all out in this book: why he should be considered credible (he’s not a professional scientist), how he came to be a paranormal investigator and why one should abide by this method of inquiry. He tells us why anecdotes as evidence are no good but, then, in the second half, he demonstrates what they CAN be good for – as insightful examples.
This book is about practical, applied skepticism. Skepticism is a hallmark of science. It’s application makes for a sound body of knowledge. A paranormal investigation should be treated like any other mystery to solve. The goal is to understand, not to prove this cause or another. To do this, Radford demonstrates how to take a step back from assumptions, to let go of attributing an event to a particular agent, and examine all the options in logical order. His remarkable creativity in exploring the events comes from experience. Radford is experienced in the psychological issues that are ubiquitous in paranormal claims. These underlying responses spark and drive people’s interest and beliefs. We can see this play out in the case studies he relates in the second half of the book. Step by step guides, reading suggestions and hints to keep in mind are no substitute for hearing the full story about how a situation played out. I would have loved to read about the mistakes that he made because we can learn more from mistakes than successes. These case studies illustrate how poorly supported some claims are and, yet, they are still accepted and propagated by the public and by those who OUGHT to know better. I was surprised by the new findings revealed in the story of the chupacabra and eagerly await the upcoming book on the subject.
Radford’s technique is science but not in the lab setting. It’s messy and one must deal with real people under everyday circumstances. Taking the scientific route is not easy and not nearly as fun as joining up with friends for a lights-out, “what the hell was that” night in an historic location. Science requires precise definitions not nebulous labels such as “ghosts”, the “chupacabra” and “Bigfoot” that have variable characteristics. The “unexplained” is decidedly overused in the media without distinguishing between the unexplained and the unexplainable. Some things can be explained. But, the answer might not be a glamorous as portrayed on TV.
Radford calls out several paranormalists for their poor scholarship and lack of updating events with new, pertinent information. To criticize what is wrong with the current paranormal scene is a touchy subject. Yet, I greatly appreciate that Ben did this and provides references to back up the claims. My favorite chapter was Chapter 4 – How Not To Investigate the Paranormal – since it ties directly into my area of interest. He explains what your everyday paranormal investigator does and why it’s a mistake.
The “other perspectives” section was a series of 2-page condensed essays by guest authors. These were too short and I would very much like to see the expanded versions made into a book of essays on their own – a “handbook” for the investigator.
As a regular participant in TV shows, Radford gives us an insiders view on how these shows are made and their ultimate purpose (spoiler: not the “truth”). With his enthusiasm for pop culture, he is able to deftly connect the influences and effects of culture to paranormal popularity. I have not seen any comparable insight anywhere else.
True gems of wisdom are richly strewn throughout the book. To summarize succinctly: this book is a necessity for all paranormal investigators. It ought to be required for those questionable “home study” courses for ghost hunters. At least, then, they might learn how to solve some mysteries instead of inflate them. I truly hope this book and the surging skeptical movement can tamp down the wave of paranormal non-science that the public mistakenly calls “scientific”. The more of these thorough, critical investigations that are carried out as suggested, and the more press attention they receive, the greater the chance we have that the public can be made aware of the other side of the story. You know — the explanation based on evidence not on sensationalism.
I prefer the truth over a fantasy. Your mileage may vary.