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Raising the Bar for Investigating Paranormal Claims

Book Review

Robert Carroll

Volume 34.5, September/October 2010

Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries
by Benjamin Radford
Rhombus Publishing Co., Corrales, New Mexico, 2010. 311 pp. Softcover, $16.95.

In a chapter on how not to investigate the paranormal in his new book, Scientific Paranormal Investigation, Benjamin Radford jokes that the entire chapter could consist of just two words: watch television. He could have advised the reader to pick up almost any book on ghosts, demons, spirits, aliens, lake monsters, crop circles, the chupacabra, or other “strange and bizarre” things. The bar for paranormal investigation in the popular media has been set very low, as evidenced by the overall poor quality of work produced so far. Radford hopes to raise the bar by clarifying and exemplifying the standards that should guide a scientific investigator.

Fortunately, not all paranormal investigations have been of poor quality. Radford, Joe Nickell—the dean of scientific paranormal investigation—and several others have been exemplars for those who wish to properly investigate paranormal claims. A special feature of Radford’s book is that it consists largely of case studies he has personally investigated. The reader can see how the principles of investigation are applied to actual paranormal claims. But the main value of Radford’s book is that he lays out what should and should not be done in a proper scientific investigation. (Radford regularly reports on his field investigations and other skeptical topics in the Skeptical Inquirer. He is SI’s managing editor and a Committee for Skeptical Inquiry research fellow.)

Radford tells the reader that his book “focuses on the practical aspects of applied skepticism . . . powerful, real-world ideas for critically examining everything from crime scenes to psychic powers to personal decisions.” These ideas have been drawn “largely from the scientific process, psychology, criminal investigation techniques, and logic.” As such, the ideas Radford explores in the first few chapters have valuable applications beyond paranormal investigations. Scientific Paranormal Investigation would be a valuable addition to the library of every journalist and skeptic. But the thousands of people who investigate weird or mysterious things and the millions of readers and viewers who follow their investigations would benefit the most.

I won’t relieve the lazy reader of the obligation to read Radford’s book by summarizing the principles of a proper scientific investigation. Here I will simply note that the goal of a proper investigation of the paranormal is neither to prove nor disprove any particular claim. Radford puts it this way: “Good science is not about advocacy; while all scientists have their biases and pet theories, their ultimate loyalty should be to the truth.” If you set out to prove or disprove the existence of a ghost at a particular location, you are not doing a scientific investigation. If the show you are watching or the book you are reading does not consider alternative hypotheses, it is not conducting scientific investigation. If an author claims that the subject of his attention or investigation is “beyond science,” you’re dealing with mysticism, not mysteries. Paranormal claims may mystify us, but if they are truly beyond science then they are beyond our ability to know or understand them. A book or film on such topics would be very short, unless it contains much speculation and storytelling. Paranormal claims are investigated precisely because they both mystify us and present themselves as mysteries we can hope to solve.

Unfortunately, too many people who try to investigate rather than validate or debunk paranormal claims are unprepared to do a proper investigation. They may have good intentions, but the road to error is paved with good intentions. Having the right tools is essential, but as Radford makes painfully clear, you can’t buy the most important tools you need. You can’t pick them up in a weekend training session. It takes years of hard work to develop the knowledge and skills needed to be a scientific paranormal investigator. Contrary to what you might see on television, an abundance of scientific gadgets is not as important as knowledge of the subject, knowledge of psychology, good logical reasoning skills, and an open mind.

Radford’s book does what a scientific paranormal investigation should do: it helps the reader distinguish the real thing from the fake.

Robert Carroll

Robert Carroll is co-chairman of the Philosophy Department at Sacramento City College in California and creator of the skeptical Web site www.skepdic.com and author of the book The Skeptic’s Dictionary. This article is based on his talk at the CSICOP conference on “Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias,” Albuquerque, New Mexico, Oct. 23—26, 2003.