Deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer and research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Benjamin Radford, has written, edited, or collaborated on a wide range of publications on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. Ben was kind enough to talk with me about his lengthy career and his approach to researching paranormal mysteries. His latest book, Investigating Ghosts, will be released by Rhombus Publishing Company this fall. I also encourage you to follow Ben’s work at benjaminradford.com, via @BTRadford on Twitter, and through his co-hosted “Squaring the Strange” podcast.
Riley Mitchell: You have described yourself as a “science-based” paranormal investigator. Would you explain a bit about what that designation means in practice and how you go about your work?
Ben Radford: I use “science-based” to contrast with other types of investigation, most of which are subjective. There are many ways humans find out about the world around us. The most common is through personal experience; we see or hear something, learn from it, and move on. For the most part personal experience works well for everyday things like learning not to lock your keys in the car. But personal experience can sometimes mislead us, especially when dealing with things that we don’t encounter every day—such as the paranormal.
Personal perception and experience tells us that our planet revolves around us. The sun moves across the sky from east to west, while we don’t appear to be moving at all. But personal experience is of course wrong; it is instead the Earth that revolves around the sun. Science reveals that the earth we walk on is also revolving at over 1,000 miles per hour (at the equator)—contrary to personal experience. So science is very useful in offering objective analysis. Though science doesn’t have all the details, it has many of them, and those parts that scientists still don’t understand won’t be filled by the earlier “mysterious” explanations. Science is simply a way of examining the world, a very effective method of analysis and investigation. You don’t need to be a scientist to investigate unexplained mysteries, but you do need to understand the principles involved.
Science has proven itself incredibly successful in explaining and finding out about the world. If we wish to know why a certain disease strikes one person and not another, we turn to medicine instead of a witch doctor. If we wish to know how to build a bridge that can span a river, we turn to physics instead of psychics. Paranormal or “unexplained” topics are testable by science: either a psychic’s prediction comes true or it doesn’t; either ghosts exist in the real world or they don’t.
RM: Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky has said that “[s]cience is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and reinvigorate it.” Do you think the scientific method can be used to reinvent/reinvigorate a person’s interest in supernatural topics, or are science and the paranormal fundamentally incompatible?
BR: The process of science is about solving mysteries, and when you do that, you find more mysteries, so it’s often the case that, as Sopolsky says, scientific breakthroughs lead to more mysteries. Not only should mysteries be investigated scientifically, but in fact many mysteries cannot be solved without scientific methods.
My skeptical colleagues and I, using scientific methods, have solved hundreds of mysteries. We have found answers and solutions to everything from astrology to zombies, ESP to ghosts. Yet non-scientific paranormal investigators rarely if ever find conclusive evidence; theirs is an open-ended quest fueled by evidence that is marginal at best. Look for yourself at the mountains of non-skeptical books on paranormal topics; see for yourself if their investigations find any conclusive evidence for the phenomenon. Ghost Hunters has been on television for a decade; what hard evidence have they found for ghosts? What definitive knowledge have we gained about the nature of ghosts over the past 10 or 20 years? Nothing; it’s all still speculation and theory. I have a book coming out later this year titled Investigating Ghosts that discusses this in depth.
RM: From your perspective, what’s the difference between a “skeptic” and a “debunker?”
BR: My job is not to doubt, nor debunk; it is to investigate. I have no vested interest in proving or disproving any unexplained phenomena; I get paid the same either way. But the cardinal rule is that an investigator must eliminate all the natural explanations before accepting supernatural ones, and must use sound science.
A debunker is often thought of as someone who sets out to disprove or debunk a claim. The problem with debunking is that it begins with, or assumes, a specific (negative) answer or conclusion and works backward to try and prove that conclusion. But that’s not how science works, nor how skeptical investigation works. You must gather and analyze the evidence through a logical and critical thinking process, and follow the evidence wherever it leads. If the answer is that there really is a ghost in a home—or there really is a monster in a lake, or psychics really can find missing persons—then that’s great! That is wonderful and interesting and important to understand and accept. No one would be happier to prove these things exist than I do.
But I’m not willing to lower the standard of evidence so that any sound in the dark is a ghost, or any unknown thing photographed in the distance is Bigfoot or Nessie. Skeptics—not debunkers—take the subjects seriously, and often spend considerable time and effort investigating these claims. Debunkers often don’t bother to investigate or look at the evidence, instead just dismissing the claims as silly or impossible without doing any research. Often of course the skeptical investigation does end up debunking a claim if it’s false, but only after diligent research—not before it.
RM: You’ve carried out field research on hundreds of paranormal claims. What are your three favorite investigations and what made them memorable?
BR: I’d have to say that my top three favorite cases are probably:
1) My chupacabra research, because it was a global mystery and I ended up solving it. It was a very complex case, involving vampire folklore, medical research, rumors, and much more. I traveled to Texas, Puerto Rico, and the jungles of Nicaragua looking for the monster, and in the end I was able to identify the very first sighting of the creature, and definitively link it to a 1995 science fiction film. It took me five years, but I solved the mystery, and I’m the one who did it—not because I’m particularly brilliant, but mostly because I put in the time and effort to do the research. My book on it is Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore.
2) My research into the Pokemon mystery illness in 1997, where thousands of Japanese children went to the hospital with seizures after watching the cartoon Pokemon. It’s not a paranormal claim, but instead a modern medical mystery. Through careful analysis I figured out what happened, and my research was published in a prestigious medical journal—can the Ghost Hunters guys say that? 🙂 This year is the twentieth anniversary of the incident, and I was recently interviewed by Motherboard about it.
3) I also really liked my investigation into the Ogopogo lake monster in British Columbia; it was published in two of my books (Lake Monster Mysteries and Scientific Paranormal Investigation). I collaborated with two other researchers, John Kirk and Joe Nickell, and a crew from the National Geographic TV show Is It Real? We did some field experiments to investigate a famous Ogopogo video, and found that what was recorded could not have been the size it was originally estimated. It was a fun blend of monster hunting and scientific experiment.
RM: Is there a paranormal event, phenomenon, or creature that you would be particularly pleased to discover is authentic?
BR: I would love to find out that psychics could predict the future and find missing persons. That would be absolutely wonderful, and it would be an incredible service to police and the families of missing persons around the world. If psychics could reliably predict attacks and identify potential bombers and terrorists, we wouldn’t need to have such stringent airport security (innocent people don’t need to be screened), and many lives could be saved. If psychics could prove their powers, I would be loudly advocating that they be in highly-paid, important positions in the FBI, TSA, and other national security agencies.
RM: Your most recent book, Bad Clowns, explores our cultural love/hate relationship with clowns. What do you think it is about these performers that has spawned such an increasing amount of negative iconography and folklore?
BR: Clowns make people uncomfortable for several reasons, among them that they straddle categories and boundaries: We know there’s a real human under all that loud clothing, greasepaint and mask—yet they look and act distinctly inhuman. They can do magic tricks, they have flowers that squirt water, they may carry around a rubber chicken—who does that? Clowns do!
Everything about clowns is exaggerated, from their primary-color clothing palette to their props. They wear shoes and eyeglasses many times too big and may accentuate their thin necks by wearing collars several sizes too large. The exaggeration almost always extends toward the greater extremes for the simple reason that they mostly perform in front of crowds, who need to see and hear their props. So clowns aren’t trying to be scary with their appearance, it’s just a function of how they typically perform.
Of course on a subconscious level any unknown person in disguise who stands near us or interacts with us might freak us out. Masks hide almost all of the non-verbal communication we ordinarily get from others. There’s so much information contained in facial expressions, vocal tones, and so on that help us understand the person who’s in front of us. But a mask quite literally masks all that, and it makes us uneasy.
Clowns may be scary to many people, but they are not inherently threatening the way a coiled rattlesnake or knife-wielding mugger is. The fear of clowns stems from a latent, potential harm, a suspicion that the seemingly silly and harmless pratfalling fool before us may in fact not be so silly, so foolish, or so harmless. Most of us understand that the clown is an act—a fake and fantastical persona adopted for a short time as part of a social event. It can be cute and funny at the time, though we may not want to be around when he decides to stop acting. The clown character, historically and culturally, has always been an ambiguous person—neither good nor bad, but sometimes either or both. The clown is a trickster figure, as is the Devil, of course, so there has always been an element of the unexpected, the scary or threatening in the clown. They will always be with us, good and bad.
You know, it is kind of funny and strange to realize that two of my best-known investigations involve chupacabra and evil clowns. I guess two lines of my obituary are pretty well written at this point, and I’ll always be known in association with vampires and clowns. Could be worse.