Ten Practical Tactics to Unravel the Uncanny
“Science, my boy, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.”
Investigating mysteries can be both fun and instructive. Sure, it’s an activity that requires a lot of patience, the desire and the time to study and remain up to date, the willingness to not stop at the surface but always get to the bottom of things, the humbleness to seek advice, and a lot of other big and small strategies in order to reach the end of the path that will lead to a final explanation—or at least to an educated guess when it’s impossible to perform definitive testing.
Here I present a few tools that will help you get started, after which you can go deeper as you see fit. In Italy, for example, the skeptics group CICAP organizes an annual course on how to investigate mysteries, which includes several seminars, experts from which to learn, books and documents to study, and practical experiences to perform (such as walking on hot coals, testing a self-proclaimed psychic, or creating a crop circle in the night). Similar courses are organized by skeptical organizations in other parts of the world as well, and there are also very good books on the subject.
Let’s start with these ten practical suggestions that you must keep in mind each time you find yourself watching a TV show or news report or reading an article dealing with an apparently inexplicable mystery. Just add a little curiosity about the subject and the desire to apply yourself and you are ready to go!
1) Make sure that the mystery actually exists.
It’s the first rule. More often than you would expect, news devoid of any foundation is published in newspapers or broadcast on television. These are usually curious episodes found on the Internet that never happened in reality, fantasies of people seeking publicity, poor translations of news outlets in a foreign language, stories misunderstood by the reporter, or perhaps urban legends that for the umpteenth time are passed off as authentic facts. In all these cases, those who have the patience to ask fundamental questions will invariably find the explanation to the mystery simply because there is no mystery to explain.
However, when you raise doubts and explain the facts to the newspaper, the website, or the program that broke the news, the reaction is rarely one of gratitude. In the best cases, a retraction is published, though usually in small print; at worst, the correction is ignored or the news is simply taken down from the website without further explanations. Therefore, when contacting the news outlet it is best to avoid sarcastic comments or reproaches. Mistakes can happen to anyone, and it is better to offer your findings as helpful contributions to the subject at hand in the hopes that in the future news will be checked for facts before being announced.
2) Check the credibility of the source.
If the director of NASA were to say that little green men have landed on Earth, the credibility of the news would be much higher than if similar statements were made by a former actress or a writer of science-fiction novels. This does not mean that the authority of a source is enough to make the statement true—the list of blunders made by Nobel laureates and heads of state is unfortunately very long—but, at least, it may represent an initial credibility filter.
3) Conduct extensive research and go back to the original sources.
Never trust the accuracy of what is reported by secondary sources. Even unintentionally, news may be distorted because it is poorly understood by the reporter, because a witness has not been able to explain him- or herself, because his or her statements were changed in order to make them more palatable to the audience, or for many other reasons. It is important to, on the one hand, compare multiple versions of the same episode, and, on the other hand, to determine who first made the claim in question whenever possible. Only then can you hope to reduce the “noise” added to a story by those who came afterward.
4) Do not make assumptions before you have all the facts.
This is the fundamental rule laid out by Sherlock Holmes: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”
Trying to guess possible explanations for a mystery with few facts and basing your guesses merely on news reports or hearsay is a sure way to avoid solving the problem. You should instead approach the mystery with an open mind and note as much detail and information as possible. You cannot rely on news reports for a very simple reason: even if a reporter is capable and attentive, the limited space available will lead him or her to leave out details that might at first sight seem insignificant but that, if known and seen in perspective, could lead to the solution of the mystery.
5) Reproduce the original conditions.
Try to recreate the conditions under which a specific phenomenon took place. Sometimes this can be enough to solve a mystery. Once, for example, I had a chance to examine some video clips with James Randi where you could see a Russian psychic move objects without touching them. The only explanation possible, aside from the unlikely explanation that she used psychokinetic powers, seemed to be the use of invisible threads or magnets. However, when we had the opportunity to recreate the same conditions using a Plexiglass plate identical to the one used by the psychic, we found with great surprise that any object of a certain weight and a certain shape was going to move around “by itself” when put on top of the plate due to a reaction of static electricity produced by the Plexiglass after it was rubbed. By reproducing the original conditions under which the psychic operated, we found a solution for the mystery without testing the psychic herself.
6) Whenever you can, check the facts for yourself.
Never trust reports given by others, even though they may be from people who are usually reliable. For example, whenever you have the opportunity, personally go to the location where a mystery took place; it’s the best way to really evaluate the situation. You can easily start to see possible alternative explanations and maybe understand what really happened. Watching television or reading web pages about the mystery at hand are not even remotely comparable to going out in the field to conduct an investigation.
7) Ask experts for advice.
Do not pretend you know everything—especially in a hyper-informed age such as ours. Getting in touch with the appropriate experts is the only useful way to solve a technical or practical doubt. CICAP’s consultants, for example, come from many different disciplines: physicists, chemists, biologists, psychologists, neurologists, climatologists, geologists, and so on. There is always some new mystery that requires a specialist opinion outside our covered fields. Searching an appropriate expert for the information you need can be a fun activity in itself and could result in collaborations that lead to new investigations and discoveries.
8) Learn to distinguish between facts and fantasies.
The plural of anecdote is not evidence. It does not matter how many stories you collect on a particular mystery, they will never have the probative value of a single documented fact. You may even have 1,000 witnesses who claim they have seen a psychic levitate in mid-air, but you can never declare a genuine levitation unless the medium performs the feat, even once, under conditions that prevent any tricks or deceptions.
9) Take witnesses with a grain of salt and be polite.
Listen with respect and patience to those who had unusual experiences or who believe they possess evidence of a paranormal phenomenon. Granted, they may be wrong, but the number of factors that influence eyewitness reports are so many (and beyond personal control) that a person may believe in good faith in what he or she says. Please, always bear in mind that the task of an investigator of mysteries is to reconstruct the facts and to find the truth, not to attack or ridicule people’s beliefs or motivations.
10) Apply Occam’s Razor.
This is perhaps the most important rule of all: always try to find the simplest explanation available. Occam’s Razor is a problem-solving principle devised in the fourteenth century by an English Franciscan friar and philosopher, William of Ockham. It states that when there are competing hypotheses that predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions is most likely the correct one. In other words, before formulating revolutionary theories, it is necessary to determine whether or not a certain phenomenon can be interpreted with existing theories.