A woman came to Benjamin Radford a couple years ago with proof of the supernatural, a recording of a child ghost. You've got to hear this, she said. Radford's response: How do you know what a child ghost sounds like? "I wasn't trying to be nasty or facetious," he says. That's just his job.
Radford is the managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, the journal of a nonprofit organization started by people like Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov, scientists concerned about the rise of pseudoscience. With a degree in psychology from the University of New Mexico, Radford's traveled the continent, investigating lake monsters, ghosts, psychic powers, all manner of phenomena and co-authored three books on such topics. He moved back to his hometown of Corrales two months ago, though he'll continue his work for the Inquirer. He's considering examining some New Mexico mysteries, such as the Roswell crash, the miraculous staircase in the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, the healing in Chimayo, the Taos hum and chupacabras.
The thing about Radford is he sets out to neither prove nor debunk any of these mysteries. That, he says, is not scientific. "You're never going to prove Bigfoot doesn't exist," he says. "But what you can do is try to bring science and rationality to the question and say, 'Well, what's the evidence for these things?'"
Tell me about your work at the Scientific Inquirer.
I wear a couple different hats in the organization. One is the managing editing, which is for the most part kind of boring—fixing people's grammar, gerunds and nouns, dealing with articles submitted by professors that don't have a verb and stuff like that. The other aspect is I also do writing and investigation. I've written or co-written three books. My latest one is called Lake Monster Mysteries and that's a book I and a co-author did that came out last year. Basically its a scientific investigation of lake monsters around the world, in Canada, of course in Loch Ness and other places.
Why bother to investigate the paranormal?
These issues come down ultimately to eye witness testimony and personal experience. The fact of the matter is that we don't have good, hard evidence for ghosts. We don't have evidence for Bigfoot or psychic powers. Whether there's good evidence for these things or not, people still believe. At that point, it becomes a psychological question.
I was talking at a Bigfoot conference a couple years back in Idaho. I was the lone skeptic. Everyone else there was a believer. So I walk in there, and I'm trying to be friendly with these people, and a guy says to me, "If you're not sure Bigfoot exists then aren't you wasting your time?"
Not a bad question.
In my mind, if ghosts do exist and these things are out there, then science needs to know about them. But on the other hand, if these things don't exist then the question becomes: Why are people seeing things that don't exist? It's interesting either way.
You say "scientific investigation." What makes up the process of scientific inquiry when it comes to the paranormal?
The main thing you need to do is look at a mystery using science and critical thinking. You need to go into it trying to solve the mystery instead of trying to perpetuate the mystery.
So you're not out to prove these things exist. You're just asking whether or not they do?
That's exactly right. I'm glad you brought that up. Part of the problem is a lot of people who are sort of armchair investigators, they sit back and say, "Oh well. That's ridiculous. These sort of things don't exist," or, "No. I saw a photo of a ghost, it must be true." I take a different tact, because in my mind, it's not enough to sit back and guess about these things.
What I do—and it's actually kind of a rare job; there's only a handful of people that do this—I go out to haunted places and I go to places where lake monsters have been seen and where crop circles appear because you have to do an investigation. You can't just dismiss it out of hand.
How did you end up in this line of work? Did you always have a particular interest in the paranormal?
I've always been interested in unexplained mysteries and unsolved mysteries. I grew up here in Corrales, and I remember when I was a kid, there used to be a small used bookstore by the elementary school. I would walk over to the bookstore on a hot day, and I'd take my allowance, $5, and buy handful of books. They'd be about mysteries like the Bermuda Triangle and the creepy creatures from outer space. They were interesting, but I noticed that all the writers seemed to be convinced all these things existed.
They start from a place of belief.
Right, right. So I started to say, "Well, OK, is there another side to the story?" I'd read a book about this person who allegedly has proven psychic powers and I'd say, "OK, I'm not saying this author is wrong, but is there someone else that has a different point of view?" I started to decide to look for the other side of the story and that's how I came across the Skeptical Inquirer magazine.
People are really crazy about this stuff.
It's interesting because a lot of the believers—
Have you ever interacted with anything you consider to be paranormal?
I haven't experienced things that would be paranormal. I have experienced things that people would consider to be unusual or paranormal. What I often find is that people will misinterpret what they're seeing.
A lot of times, people who tell me they saw a ghost or that they experienced psychic powers, for the most part, I believe them. I don't think they're lying to me. I don't think they're trying to fool me.
Science has shown that a lot of times people just misperceive or misunderstand things. I have experienced this over and over and over again. That's one of the main recurring themes I encounter. I try to look for the rational explanations first.
So do you think any of those things exist?
It depends on how you define some of these. In the case of Bigfoot, if the question is "Do Bigfoot exist in the cultural sense?," in the public's mind (and I would argue that's a very important question; that's not just an evasive question), Bigfoot is a label for an experience that someone can't explain. It's definitely in the culture. The question as to whether Bigfoot exists out in the wilderness is still an open question, which isn't to say that tomorrow it might be different. I'm open to the idea. If I was convinced they weren't out there, I wouldn't be wasting my time.
Why do you think people are so determined to believe?
Part of it is that we are all interested in the unknown and the unusual. There's a very human desire to know what's out there. It's a cool idea. Are there really aliens watching us and making circles in crops and abducting people and doing anal probes and all that good stuff? There's implications with ghosts of the existence of an afterlife. The afterlife is a religious or deep-seated desire or wish. People like to think they'll live on the other side and that their grandmother's looking out for them. There's a definite psychological benefit to some people. It's a comfort.
So how would one disprove this stuff?
You can't really. You can go by individual cases. I was with the "National Geographic" TV program and I was doing some research up at Lake Okanagan. I was talking to another investigator there. I said, "Look, there's no good evidence for this lake monster. We're out on this boat. We have sonar. We have divers going down, all sorts of stuff." I said to this guy, "You believe there's a lake monster here. What would we have to do to prove to you that there's no monster here?" His answer was, "You'd have to drain the whole lake."
You go to these places, you talk to people, you poke around ...
You have to go and investigate and try to experience it for yourself. I'll give you an example from a crop circle I investigated about an hour north of Buffalo where I was living. I went and looked at the crop circle, and I measured it and took some samples from the stalks that had been bent down. I looked at some of the claims.
One person was saying, "Isn't it mysterious that there are no footprints around this crop circle?" I'm looking around, and in fact this crop circle appeared in hard-baked clay. I looked at the guy and said, "Short of an elephant, nothing's going to make a track in this clay." "Isn't that weird?" Well, no, it's not weird, actually. So you follow the steps and try to come up with the best explanation using science.
What's the Pokemon Panic of 1997?
It's one of the investigations I'm particularly proud of. What happened was, 10 years ago in Japan, there were Japanese children watching the cartoon "Pokemon." On this one particular night in August, they had this one sequence of this one cartoon that had a series of bright flashes. Thousands of children allegedly had seizures and went to the hospital. This really freaked everyone out. They were like, "Oh my God. How is this innocent cartoon sending my child to the hospital?"
They finally decided there was this series of flashes when Picachu charges or gets ready to do an attack that causes these seizures. It's true that in the right conditions, some children can have seizures due to photosensitive epilepsy. But this is very rare. The number of children who were allegedly affected was in the thousands or tens of thousands.
I didn't actually have to go to Japan, luckily. I pieced it together. The answer was that it was mostly a case of mass hysteria.
It hadn't actually happened?
Yes and no. It's interesting because there were a few cases of kids who had seizures. There were maybe a few dozen. They key to understanding the Pokemon Panic was that the attack didn't all happen at one time. It unfolded over a series of days. The evening it happened, a handful of kids went to the hospital. Of course this was the talk of the schoolyard because Pokemon is something everyone watches. The next day, everyone was talking about it. That night, kids heard other people talking about it and then they got sick, even though they didn't necessarily see the episode again.
You had thousands of kids going to the hospitals, writhing and freaking out and foaming at the mouth and all sorts of stuff only on the basis of something they'd heard about.
We have a Bigfoot enthusiast in the office. He wanted me to ask you if you know anything about the Bigfoot sightings in the Jemez, near Cuba or the East Forks?
I know there are Bigfoot sightings there. I haven't investigated them personally. The thing about New Mexican Bigfoot is that reports of Bigfoot in New Mexico are very rare. The vast concentration is in the Pacific Northwest. The main argument I see against Bigfoot existing in New Mexico simply comes down to population numbers. If you think about it, there can't just be one Bigfoot. There's got to be a girl Bigfoot and a boy Bigfoot and you can go from there. There has to be a breeding population of these creatures. There can't just be one, or else it would have died out hundreds of years ago.
We're not just looking for one Bigfoot, we're looking for probably dozens of Bigfoot or maybe hundreds. In a state like New Mexico, where are all the Bigfoot? Where are the dozens or hundreds of Bigfoot that need to be in the state? Calculate the amount of space they would have to be hiding in. There would have to be one every few square miles. They're just not seen that often.
Do you have a favorite case you've worked on?
My favorite one would probably be the haunted house I investigated in Buffalo. It was a classic haunted house case. It had all the hallmarks of a good bad movie. It was this family, a mother, a father and a young daughter. They were reporting a demonic face. They took photos of orbs or ghosts in photographs. There was a freaky creaky staircase, like in a Disney movie. Cold spots, animals reacting weirdly—it had all of the classics.
The guy claimed the ghost attacked him. He said he was kicked by a ghost. How cool is that? I'm thinking, "Yeah! Let's check this out." I found good explanations for a lot of it. They called me between Halloween and Thanksgiving, and they had actually been scared out of their house and they were living with their in-laws. They're were genuinely terrified. Working with them, I helped explain a lot of the phenomena. I'm especially proud of that one because I helped the family move back into their home in time for Thanksgiving.
What kind of training does it take to do the work you do?
There is a project initiated by the FBI in 1978. What they do is they take you to an underground bunker and give you a superhuman serum and they inject you ... (laughter) ... no, I'm kidding.
The No. 1 tool of a paranormal investigator is a good understanding of the scientific method and how investigation works. It's amazing to me when I see these guys; maybe you've seen the show "Ghost Hunters." I watch this program and I laugh. It's ridiculous. These guys are not doing science. It makes for entertaining television, but there's almost no science or skepticism there. They often admit they didn't find a ghost. But come on, they're using these scientific gadgets as if they're ghost detectors.
Scientific method. Anything else?
Well, I'm biased, but a background in psychology helps. I've found that a lot of these issues come down to human experience. People need to understand how the human mind can be fooled and how we fool ourselves. When a person says they saw something, what does that really mean?
Having an open mind and a good grasp of the topic, doing the homework, that's important. There's nothing new under the sun. People have been talking about Bigfoot for decades, ghosts for centuries, crop circles for 20 or 30 years. These are long-standing so-called mysteries. You need to know your stuff.