I consider myself a skeptic at heart. I went through a brief phase of wanting to believe in the paranormal in my teens. It was a shallow, teenage thing; wanting to believe in something just because it ran counter to conventional wisdom. I think that’s a big part of the allure of the paranormal. It’s outside the way we know the world to work. It’s mysterious and sexy, and we feel like we’re clued into something that most people are completely unaware of. That feeling, unfortunately, comes at the cost of completely ignoring logic and common sense.
I also believe that skeptical-thinking gets a bad rap. Most of us think about it as in inherently negative thing: to be skeptical is to not believe, to close off one’s mind to the possibility of things out there beyond our current understanding of the laws of nature. That sounds bad, but it’s completely untrue.
To be skeptical, one doesn’t need to disbelieve. One only needs to require proof in the form of repeatable tests and solid evidence. If proof of a paranormal claim can be provided, skeptics – by and large – would simply accept it as fact, and the paranormal would become normal. I think this is the strength of critical thinking. It’s inherently flexible. Science changes over time to accept and build on new discoveries, while dogmatic beliefs do the exact opposite. It hunkers down and continues with the status quo.
It is into this conflict that Scientific Paranormal Investigation fits. It’s a book that examines both sides of the coin. It is, obviously, a book for skeptics, but it’s aim is to approach things openly and honestly. I really liked this approach, which cautions about looking at something with preconceived notions. A true skeptic shouldn’t go in looking to disprove something, nor should they try to prove it. The important thing is the truth, wherever that should happen to fall.
Coming into a situation with a notion of what’s really going on has a way of making you short-sighted. Consciously or otherwise, you start looking for evidence to support your theory, rather than building your theory based on the evidence you find. The book demonstrates this using a lot of interesting, personal narratives from Ben Radford (the writer), and a number of other luminaries in the skeptical world.
This anecdotes illustrate how they approached a variety of different mysteries, and show how they would have missed important information had they been trying to prove/disprove something, rather than simply gathering evidence. It’s both fascinating and tremendously important information.
After these brief stories, we get a solid primer on investigating the “mysterious” with critical thinking. It’s the most straightforward part of the book, and is filled with incredibly useful information. It’s also a reality check. Investigation, by and large, comes in the form of research. Hunkering down and hitting the books. Digging through archives and finding information as close to the source as possible. It’s not as alluring as traveling to exotic places and yelling at ghosts, but it’s a heck of a lot more effective.
We also get a tremendously entertaining chapter focused on Ghost Hunters-styled shows, which demonstrates everything not to do. If you’ve ever been annoyed at those self-styled “paranormal investigators” running around with IR cameras and EMF meters, you’ll dig this part of the book.
The second half focuses entirely on personal accounts of investigations conducted by Radford. These are a really nice mix of mini-mysteries, all of which are solved using the tactics outlined earlier in the book. These are fun stories that are well told and support the earlier lessons, but I can’t help but think that they rob the book a bit of more straightforward practical advice. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to read a dozen more of these, but I would have liked a more “how to” approach rather than illustrative anecdotes.
Despite minor complaints, I’d highly recommend Scientific Paranormal Investigation to any budding skeptic or critical thinker out there. It’s and approachable and fun read, with a lot of insights into incredible interesting cases.