Walking through a darkly lit mansion, trailed by a night-vision camera, two paranormal investigators use their electromagnetic field readers to inspect a cold spot in the room. "If there are any spirits here, please make yourself known," an investigator shouts. Suddenly, a noise startles the investigators, who inevitably conclude that a voice came from beyond the grave.
To a fan of the SyFy Channel's Ghost Hunters, this is a familiar scene, and perhaps a legitimate representation of a paranormal investigation. But to the skeptic, the scientist, such scenes are full of sound and fury, but signify – well, not much.
"The real work that would need to be done to verify ghosts is not particularly interesting," said veteran paranormal investigator Benjamin Radford. "It's not sexy. It's not what's on TV. It is tests using different control conditions."
Radford should know: For over a decade, he has investigated ghosts, lake monsters, Bigfoot and UFOs with an overtly skeptical approach, separating himself from the mass of self-proclaimed experts and snake oil salesmen with his critical and rigorous tack. Television ghost hunters may be a popular and entertaining, and Radford admits he picks on them mostly because they're so popular. But according to him there is nothing scientific about their approach.
"These two plumbers are presented as knowledgeable, scientific ghost hunters," Radford said. "[They are] single-handedly spawning hundreds of ghost hunting groups who model their techniques after what they see on TV"
Like the television ghost hunters they emulate, very few of those groups are grounded in science, Radford says. It's a notion that inspired Radford's latest book, Scientific Paranormal Investigations: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries, and the traveling workshop he developed to share some of the techniques from the book. The weekend of Sept. 24-25, he'll be bringing his experience and his workshop to Indianapolis, where he will teach attendees to examine photographs of ghosts and lake monsters, interpret weird sounds, show proper equipment – explaining how to approach a mystery scientifically, combining science with the unexplained.
Ideally, says Radford, everyone will think critically about ghosts and monsters.
"Ultimately, of course, the teaching is never done," Radford said. "There's always new people, there's always new scams to fool [them]."
A True Believer
Radford wasn't always a skeptic. As a teenager, he devoured "mystery mongering, pro-paranormal books," as he describes them. Disillusion replaced fascination when Radford realized there was no real science, no original investigation supporting the stories he read.
"Virtually all the books and magazine articles and everything I read about all these amazing paranormal, unexplained mysteries, almost invariably the writer was rehashing other people's stories," he said.
Disenchanted but not ready to give up his love for the paranormal, Radford searched for specific details and eyewitness accounts of paranormal events, but found none. The inspiration to do his own investigations came later, after Radford graduated with a degree in psychology from University of New Mexico. He became fascinated with the psychology of belief and what constitutes good evidence from one person to another.
Along the way, he discovered James Randi – otherwise known as "The Amazing Randi." Randi, considered one of the founders of skeptical inquiry, started his career as a magician and escape artist. But his later work helped inspire Radford's skepticism. Over the years, Randi has worked to debunk faith healers and psychics. His offer of $1 million to whomever demonstrates psychic abilities in a controlled environment remains unclaimed.
Radford was inspired by James Randi's skeptical take on the works of Nostradamus in Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine Radford now edits.
"I certainly read about Nostradamus, but nothing even remotely critical or inquisitive" Radford said. "James Randi's stuff was certainly the other side of the story."
Tools of the Trade
Forget the fancy gadgets. The tools Radford uses to conduct his investigations are far more mundane. They might not play as well on TV, but, Radford says, they're what's required.
"I don't use electromagnetic field detectors and infrared cameras to find ghosts for the same reason a surgeon doesn't use a tire iron in surgery," said Radford.
"Professional" television ghost hunters use hi-tech gadgetry like this. Audio instruments record creepy voices, and cold spots alert the hunter to the presence of spirits. According to Radford, this equipment has never been proven to find ghosts.
Radford's tools are simple: safety pins, fishing line, a Swiss army knife. Radford admittedly uses a motion detector, but he refers to it as investigative equipment instead of ghost hunting equipment.
"A lot of my investigation gear is generalized down to earth because often times I found that the investigation doesn't go to catching a ghost, but to what are people experiencing as a ghost," he said.
Radford's most important tool is his scientific integrity, he says. Most of the ghost hunters Radford encounters are not interested in the science. Science just does not compare to walking around a cemetery with a flashlight.
"Any town of any size will have a local ghost hunting group.... Unfortunately they very rarely have any background in science and investigations," said Radford.
Radford does not accept private money for his investigations. To him, it is unethical to investigate something that has not been proven.
"If you're a lawyer, you can prove that you know the law," he said. "If you're a car mechanic, you can prove that you can fix cars. If you're a ghost hunter, you can't prove that you can find a ghost, it's impossible."
Radford is among the few full-time paranormal investigators in the country, getting paid for investigations by Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, where he works. Most of the money comes from articles that come from his investigations.
Radford said the number one mistake he sees when it comes to ghost hunting is "assuming that no specialized knowledge or expertise is needed to effectively investigate ghosts." His advice? "Be very wary of information that [you] get about what ghosts are or how to exorcise them. I have seen over and over again people who are scared shitless sometimes because they are convinced that their house is haunted. Not only because something's going on that they can't explain, but also because of what they've seen on TV."
A Proven Track Record
One of Radford's most famous case studies is the haunting of the Santa Fe Court House in New Mexico.A security camera in that courthouse captured a mysterious white blob that became the subject of speculation, and later a viral YouTube video discussed on ABC, CBS News and newspapers throughout America. One of the most popular explanations was that the blob was the ghost of the man killed at the courthouse in 1985.
Radford was asked by a Santa Fe reporter to investigate, and soon was left with just two conclusions: either the ghost image was a cottonwood seed floating near the camera, or a bug had crawled across the camera. After debunking the cottonwood idea, Radford was able to replicate the ghostly image's size, color and movement by filming a ladybug crawling on the lens, convincing the court deputy that the apparition was indeed an illusion.
"I've never seen anything that really scared me," Radford said. "If there really is a ghost or a demon and I can prove it, that would be great, I would be the first person in the world that can do that... On the other hand, if the house is not filled with ghosts, than what is it?"
His skepticism has made him the go-to expert of sorts for numerous media outlets. In addition to his This skeptical attitude is obvious in In addition tohundreds of articles debunking house hauntings, spaces aliens and popular ghost stories, Radford has lent his expertise to CNN, The History Channel, the National Geographic Channel, The Learning Channel, CBC, BBC and others. He also served as a consultant for an episode of the CBS crime drama CSI.
Radford, however, does not make a career out of cheekily denouncing other paranormal investigators. He has visited lakes that have supposed monsters, and he has spent time in haunted houses looking for ghosts and demons.
"I don't just sit in my little armchair and say 'no, no that's ridiculous' or 'that's silly,'" Radford said. "No, I believe in getting your hands dirty and going in the field and trying to solve the mystery."
Benjamin Radford will speak about his experiences on Sept. 24 at 7:00 p.m., at the Center for Inquiry Indiana (CFI), 350 Canal Walk Suite A. On Sept. 25, CFI will host Radford's paranormal investigation workshop from 2 to 5 p.m.