Shortfalls in investigating the paranormal: advice from a skeptic author

By Rick Hinton

I’m currently reading writer, investigator and skeptic Benjamin Radford’s book, Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits. I’m savoring it slowly, like a fine wine. Radford’s been in this “business” for a few years and knows his way around a haunting. He also knows some of the shortfalls that investigators bring to the table, especially groups just starting out. There’s a wealth of information to learn right from the start. Radford has some advice for those desiring to venture into ghost hunting:

Failing to consider alternative explanations for anomalous or “unexplained” phenomena.

“Ghost hunters often over-interpret evidence and fail to adequately consider alternative explanations, assuming that ‘orbs’ are ghosts, EVPs (electronic voice phenomena) are ghost voices and so on. The designation of ‘unexplained’ or paranormal must be accepted only when all other natural explanations have been ruled out. The scientific evidence of the validity of EVPs is as poor as it is for orbs. An investigator must be careful not to go beyond the established facts and assume his interpretation is the correct one without keeping an open mind about other interpretations. These types of reports [EVPs and orbs] are very common and cannot be accepted at face value.”

The cover of Benjamin Radford’s book. (Photos by Rick Hinton)

Considering subjective feelings and emotions as evidence of ghostly encounters.

Ghost hunters often report descriptions of personal feelings. Subjective experiences are essentially stories and anecdotes. There’s nothing wrong with personal experiences, but by themselves are not proof or evidence of anything. Most people reporting such experiences are sincere in their belief, but that belief doesn’t necessarily make it true. The power of suggestion can be very strong, and one can easily convince themselves that something weird is going on in a dark, creepy house.”

This can be so true if you go into a location where something particularly tragic happened and you are aware of the past event beforehand; maybe having had the time to research and mull it over. It becomes a part of us and very personal.

Using improper and unscientific investigation methods.

Purposely conducting an investigation in the dark intentionally hobbles the investigation and is completely counterproductive. (Nearly every ghost-themed TV show has the investigators walk around in a darkened place.) It also violates common sense and logic: If you’re trying to identify an unknown object, is it better to look for it under bright lights or in a darkened room? Searching at night, in the dark, puts investigators at an immediate disadvantage in trying to identify and understand what’s going on around them. Searching a dark room for a shadowy figure is an exercise in futility.”

“Most ghost hunters consider themselves scientific if they use high-tech scientific equipment. Yet, for any piece of equipment to be useful, it must have proven some connection to ghosts. The problem is that there’s no body of research these devices measure anything to do with ghosts.”

A team gets their gear in order at the start of an investigation.

Focusing on the history of a haunted location.

“Although a supposedly haunted location might have a fascinating history, this almost always has little or nothing to do with the current haunted claims. It must be investigated completely independent of this information.”

I might somewhat disagree with Radford on this observation however, best practice would be to file away the baggage of these stories for the moment and proceed on. You might just get somewhere in the end.

Radford concludes:

“I believe that if ghosts exist, they are important and deserve to be taken seriously. Most of the efforts to investigate ghosts so far have been badly flawed and unscientific, and, not surprisingly, fruitless. If investigation is to be done, it should be done right!”