By Bruce Adams
If there’s something strange in your neighborhood, who are you gonna call? Do Ghostbusters really exist? As a matter of fact—and facts are what matter here—Amherst is not just the second safest “city” in the country, it’s also the worldwide headquarters of skeptical and rational thinking. The Center for Inquiry International (CFI) on Rensch
Benjamin Radford and Joe Nickel.
Photo by Jim Bush.
Road near UB promotes reason, science, and evidence-based inquiry into all sorts of topical issues. The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) is the branch of CFI that investigates such things as ghosts, psychics, and crop circles—your basic X Files material. I spoke with senior research fellow, author, former magician, and private detective Joe Nickel, as well as Benjamin Radford, managing editor of Skeptical Enquirer (the CSICOP Journal). Both are paranormal investigators—the closest thing to real-life Ghostbusters—but they don’t tote proton packs, and contrary to what you might expect, they don’t disparage believers.
Nickel: When you mention the paranormal, people tend to divide into two camps and use the word believe a lot: “I believe in ghosts; don’t you believe?” “No, I don’t believe.” There’s a kind of mystery-mongering on one side, this overly credulous approach, and on the other side this dismissive, debunking, too-silly-for-words approach. What I’ve labored to do with my life is to actually—emphasize actually—investigate paranormal claims, not start with “well, let’s see how quickly I can make fun of your haunted house.”
Radford: For me, it’s not a matter of going into it with the assumption that I know what’s going on. Certainly after a while you begin to see patterns in, for example, hauntings, but just as it’s wrong to have a blanket acceptance of these things, it’s wrong to blanket reject.
Q: Yeah, but the whole idea of ghosts is really pretty silly, right?
Nickel: I get this all the time from the closed-minded debunker type. They think the issue is whether there are haunted houses or not—and of course they already “know” there are not—but the real issue is, do people believe there are haunted houses? Well, they do, in huge numbers. Are you going to address this by telling people how stupid they are and offering superficial explanations, or are you actually going to become informed so you may learn something about the nature of people and these phenomena? I can tell you that when you investigate a phenomenon, the explanation might be quite different than the debunkers think.
Q:But seriously, ghosts aren’t real, right?
Radford: I have a background in psychology, and what I find is that there’s often simple misperception. People misperceive things all the time. I misperceive things. We all do. A lot of skepticism is recognition of the fallibility of human perception. It’s saying that just because you saw something, it’s not necessarily what you think you saw. It’s not for us as investigators to say, “You’re silly.” No, we all experience things; the distinction is that with my background and expertise I can explain some things that the average person cannot.
Q:But there are probably no ghosts, right?
Nickel: That’s not the question. The question is, “do people think there are ghosts?” Well, we know that they do. Then how do we address those claims?
Above: Benjamin Radford and Joe Nickel at the
Center for Inquiry.
Photo by Jim Bush.
Radford: I investigated a haunted house in Lackawanna, and this particular family was having all sorts of ghostly experiences. As I was driving down—I remember this clearly—I wanted to understand what they were experiencing; I wanted to hear the mysterious footsteps they were hearing. My girlfriend said, “Aren’t you a little worried?” I thought about it and said, “No, I would be fascinated if there really [are] some sort of supernatural goings on there.” I would love to experience that.
Nickel: My first major case was the McKinsey house in Toronto, and people were hearing footsteps on the stairs. They really were. They were not lying or hallucinating. The house was locked, and there were footsteps. Did I think I would find a ghost? I thought it was unlikely that the steps would be supernatural, but people were reporting something. To make a long story short, the people were hearing footsteps on a parallel iron staircase in the building next door. That was a lesson to me. Why didn’t the people in the house discover this? Well, they believed in ghosts and they were inclined to go the other way, afraid of ghosts. I was going where the phenomenon was. But if you care about finding what our world is about, you don’t say, “I’m only interested in this dichotomy of supernatural or not-supernatural.”
Radford: If I were certain that there was nothing of interest going on in a house, I wouldn’t waste my time. If these were crazy people, I wouldn’t spend days and weeks planning and researching. The truth of the matter is, if this particular house is haunted, I want to be the first person there.
Q:What about psychics and spiritualists?
Radford: Sometimes people feel we are trying to toe the scientific line and not let people think magically, but if one particular person has psychic powers that we can prove in controlled tests, great, wonderful! My feelings aren’t on the line about this, but the issue is, either [a] psychic phenomenon is going on, or it’s not.
Nickel: What is it about our culture that’s producing certain phenomena that are continually resonant with people? Some are resonant with me; I understand exactly why people have feelings about talking to dead loved ones. I have the same feelings, so when I look into the phenomenon of spiritualism, I understand the attraction. I want to figure out how in some cases the sharpies are playing mind games with people [so that I can] explain in more detail why it is they’re not really talking to the dead. When I started here in 1995 I would have told you that spiritualism had been relegated to an obscure colony of silly people still hanging on to this discredited thing—then all of a sudden it came back in this virulent strain, from the old-fashioned mediumship with manifestations and things, to these new sharpies who stand up and do it in bright lights, not dark rooms.
Q:Aren’t articles about people bending silverware with their minds just entertainment?
Nickel: The media know the paranormal sells; people are hugely interested in all aspects of it. The media cater to that interest, and they often apply a different journalistic standard to it. Any other issue will have both sides addressed in an attempt to be balanced, but where it comes to the paranormal, they shamelessly mystery-monger, and when anyone brings up the subject of ethics, they hide behind the term “entertainment.”
Radford: A big part of the problem is that a lot of [media coverage] isn’t [intended] to inform. They’re ratings-driven. …This content is cheap and easy to produce. It’s easy to put someone out there who is going on about how his or her Aunt Millie is a psychic or can move pencils with her mind. … Rarely do the media bring in someone with a different point of view. I just ask that the scientific point of view be presented fairly. But often you get fifty minutes of the believers with thirty seconds of scientific rebuttal, and the tag line is “you decide.”
Q:Ever feel bad when you have to tell someone his or her personal “supernatural occurrence” was a natural phenomenon?
Nickel: Well, there’s good and bad news there. The bad news is that you usually can find out what’s going on and explain it to people. The good news is, they won’t listen to you.
Q:What about Mason Winfield and others who write paranormal books and offer ghost walks and things like that?
Nickel: Without getting personal, a mystery-monger doesn’t have to do anything much but go around collecting tales. Mason would probably resent the word “mystery-monger;” he probably considers himself some sort of folklorist. Well, no, a folklorist studies the process of folklore and what it tells us about people; to simply pass on tales and imply that behind them is some kind of truth is not what a folklorist does.
Q:Let me get your take on a couple of local tales. How about the Holiday Inn ghost story?
Nickel: The whole story about the little girl Tanya that perished in the fire at the Holiday Inn: it never happened. There was no such fire on the site. There was no such girl. The Grand Island historians have never heard of this fiery tragedy. Anyone who claims it happened ought to prove it, not just keep telling the story after we have shown it’s untrue. … It seems almost impossible to debunk it, because facts don’t seem to matter; evidence doesn’t seem to matter.
Radford: Yeah, we challenged the Curse of Devil’s Hole. It’s a dangerous area, apparently, and we were endangering our lives going there, but we made out okay. I will tell you, though, in all honesty, that since that time—and this has been five years now—I have had unfortunate things happen to me.
Nickel: Of course, they also happened before he went there.
Radford: I’m just saying…
Nickel: Then there’s the horrible story of the headless ghost in Fort Niagara. Nothing to that. Implausible historically. Without foundation. Radford: I investigated some mysterious black cats—“jaguars”—in Niagara and Fort Erie. Turned out to be a retired circus performer who kept some large cats on his property. One of them got away and the Niagara police used an infrared heat seeker to track it down.
Nickel: I got a call one day from Wyoming County to ask if I was willing to go down and examine a severed alien hand. I said, “I’m your guy.” I went down with my Severed Alien Hand Kit, and my studies showed that this was indeed a severed alien hand from the distant planet “Latex.” The deputy sheriff seemed a little sheepish when I showed how it snapped like a rubber band and smelled like rubber gloves, and the mold seam on the bone—it didn’t hurt that I pointed that out, but that’s the kind of thing you have to look at.
You can learn more about CSICOP at www.csicop.org.
Bruce Adams is an artist, educator and skeptic living in Buffalo.