Ben Radford – Paranormal Investigation

July 04, 2008

Ben Radford is is one of the world’s few science-based paranormal investigators, and has done first-hand research into psychics, ghosts and haunted houses, exorcisms, Bigfoot, lake monsters, UFO sightings, crop circles, and other topics. He is managing editors of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and editor-in-chief of the Spanish-language magazine Pensar, published in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The author of many books, including Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us, and Lake Monster Mysteries: Investigating the World’s Most Elusive Creatures (with Joe Nickell), he also writes online at and

In this interview with D.J. Grothe, Radford recounts some of his experiences as a paranormal investigator, drawing a contrast between his work and that of the “ghost hunters.” He talks about his attempts at “steath skepticism” and also about his new board-game, Playing Gods.

Also in this episode, philosopher and Center for Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz shares a special message for rationalists on Independence Day, about the Influence of the Enlightenment on America.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, July 4th, 2008. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. Happy July 4th. Before we get to our interview with Ben Radford, here’s a special July 4th message from CFS founder Paul Kurtz about the influence of the Enlightenment on America. 

July 4th marks the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence authored by Thomas Jefferson. So many firework displays and parades have been held to contribute to that event in American history that what more can be said? Perhaps an overlooked fact. Surely one that has not been sufficiently appreciated is the influence of the French and European enlightenment on the leaders of the American Revolution and on the new nation that was about to be born. Many or most of the outstanding men that that time Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, Washington, were profoundly influenced by the ideas and values of the Enlightenment. And they drew upon the writings of John Locke, the French philosopher and other European authors. Indeed, Jefferson and Franklin spent time in France as representatives of the American colonies. Many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were men of learning who seriously studied the great books of that period and learned from them. Many cherished the personal libraries that they collected. Jefferson donated his to the University of Virginia, which he later established. Incidentally, he died on July 4th, 1826, exactly 50 years after the Declaration of Independence. Our founding fathers were incredible giants and they contributed enormously to our political future. But they were human, all too human. Jefferson had an intimate relationship with his slave. Sara Hemingway, and indeed sired several children with her. He even took her to Paris with him. Benjamin Franklin was lionized by the French. Yet he is reputed to have pursued the French woman with a lusty passion. Alexander Hamilton, according to his biographers, also led a robust personal life. The right of privacy for men and women in public life perhaps had more meaning in those days than today. In any case, it is the contributions of secular humanism to American democracy that I wish to highlight. The first point that I wish to make is that the Declaration of Independence focuses on basic humanistic values life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Eloquently defends individual freedom and the achievement of a good life. Intrinsic to the declaration is the assertion that all men are created equal. The affirmation of Human Rights Watch, Tom Paine and Jefferson later so forthrightly enunciated. The second point to be made is that America was founded as a secular republic. The Constitution, which was later drafted by Madison, begins with the memorable words we the people of the United States. It does not say that there is a divine right of monarchs or rulers. Sovereignty is derived from the people, not from God. The Bill of Rights, later enacted, begins with the First Amendment, which states that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. This is the foundation of the separation of church and state. The first nation to clearly affirm that principle. Jefferson authored the Statue of Virginia for Religious Liberty, which was later adopted by the House of Bourges in Virginia. James Madison, too, was a heroic defender of religious liberty. A person should have the right to believe or not believe in whatever creed he chooses. Liberty of thought and conscience is thus enshrined in the great American experiment. The Constitution clearly states that there shall be no religious qualification for public office. Would that our candidates for office today, they heed to that provision. Third, the founders of the American Republic were naturalists. That is, they look to the sciences to understand nature. Although many were desists, they were critical of superstition, reason they thought was the best guide to life. Influenced by Voltaire, they believed deeply in free thought and free inquiry. Fourth, they accepted a key ideal of enlightenment. The conviction that human progress is possible and there are vital roles that reason science and education could contribute in improving the human condition. These are predicated on the values of secularism and humanism. A belief in the capacity of human beings to govern themselves if afforded the liberty and the opportunity to do so. Fifth, implicit in the American political system are the civic virtues of democracy. These emphasized the right to dissent. A free press. Tolerance of conflicting points of view. The use of rational methods to persuade other men and women. And the willingness to negotiate differences peacefully are a system of checks and balances. Always seek to guard against success of power in one branch of government. No one should be considered above the law. Thus, we celebrate July 4th and the Declaration of Independence of 1776. But the true meaning of that declaration is discovered by what followed from it. The adoption of the Constitution. The bloody civil war which extended equal rights to African-Americans. The suffragists movement which enabled women to fully participate in society. The emancipation of Native Americans from mistreatment by the movement of settlers westward and other vital reforms. The progressive ideals of the early days of America need to be cherished. The principles of independence, freedom, equality, opportunity, the reliance on science and reason, education and democracy to improve life are all part of the American dream. They were introduced in the Enlightenment of the 18th century. The vast energies that that intellectual and ethical movement inspired still needs to be realized. And July 4th is a good day to reaffirm that conviction. 

Where can you turn to find others like yourself who appreciate critical thinking, turned to Skeptical Inquirer, the magazine that separates fact from media myth. It’s published by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Find out what genuine science has to say about the extraordinary and the unexplained. You’ll be surprised. Subscribed to Skeptical Inquirer today. One year, six challenging issues for nineteen ninety nine. To subscribe a request, a sample issue, just call one 800 six three four one six one zero or visit the point of inquiry. Website point of inquiry dot org. 

I’m happy to have my friend Ben Radford on point of inquiry. He’s managing editor of the Science magazine Skeptical Inquirer and editor in chief of Pentz Are, which is the Spanish language skeptical magazine published in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He’s the author of three books, including Lake Monster Mysteries Investigating the World’s Most Elusive Creatures. Along with Joe Nicol, he’s also a columnist for Skeptical Inquirer magazine and The Skeptical Brief’s newsletter, as well as online at Life Science, and Media Mythmakers Dot Com. In his work with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Ben is one of the world’s few science based paranormal investigators and has done firsthand research into psychics. Ghosts, haunted houses, exorcisms, miracles, Bigfoot, Stigmata, Lake monsters, really the whole gamut of paranormal claims. And he writes on a lot of other topics as well, including world travel, science literacy, jungle hiking, sex offender panics, popular phalluses. He’s all over the place. He’s a very interesting character and I’m happy to have him back on point of inquiry. Welcome back to the show, Ben Redford. 

Thank you, D.J.. Good to be on, Ben. 

I wanted you back on the show so we could talk about your involvement and skepticism. You were talking to me off air about this investigation you’ve recently done about a haunted mansion in Jamaica. 

Yeah, I actually just finished writing up a piece that I investigated a year to back on a. It’s called The White Witch of Rose Hall. And it’s basically this huge mansion outside of Montego Bay in Jamaica. And it overlooks what used to be a sugar plantation. And there are stories of a woman named Annie Palmer, who is supposedly the white witch of Rose Hall, who haunted to this day and supposedly killed while depending on who you talk to. Anywhere from three to five husbands and dabbled in voodoo. And there’s this whole very romantic, you know, you know, Gothic feel to this story. And basically, I went down there and and I I investigated the hauntings and the supposedly haunting things going on there and compared that to a lot of the folklore and folk tales surrounding this woman named Annie Palmer and sort of tried to hash out truth from fiction. 

So you’re actually hitting the pavement doing the kind of investigations that people on TV like the ghost hunters do, except you’re doing it from a skeptical bent. 

Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, this is in fact, it was interesting when I when I was researching the Rose Hall investigation. There’s lots and lots of material on it. The problem is that even the stuff that was done by so-called investigators, they didn’t do any investigation. It’s they basically just repeated stories. And oftentimes that’s what you find with a lot of these so-called ghost hunter groups. 

Right. A lot of them, they just have you know, that they go into a paranormal scene kind of like a crime scene. But you know, where there are reports of paranormal phenomena and they have their gizmos and their blinking lights and the right kind of night photography equipment, but that’s all they do. They don’t actually talk to people and investigate the claims. 

You know, if you don’t know anything about actual real investigation, it’s all very impressive with their lights and their gizmos and you have detectors, but yet it’s it’s actually just shocking. The low level of critical thinking, research, scholarship and investigative tools that they use is really amazing. 

Did you leave this haunted mansion in Jamaica with a conclusion or are you still open minded about whether or not it’s haunted? 

Well, in fact, that’s that’s a very good question, because oftentimes in a lot of these cases, you won’t necessarily get an absolutely definitive answer in terms of whether it’s haunted or not, because there will be you know, it’s very difficult to disprove a negative. 

But in this particular case, I have conclusively proven that annual Annie Palmer did not haunt Rose Hall. And I’ve proven that in the article that it’ll be coming out soon. And where’s that article going to appear? 

That’ll be appearing later this year or early next year in 14 Times magazine. It’s a British magazine. 

One of my favorite magazines. It’s kind of skeptical Inquirer, but for believers. 

Exactly. And I hope to have a version for Essi as well. 

Great. So you investigated this one and mansion. You’re open minded in some of your investigations, but here your conclusive that there is no haunting that must rile up the people who believe in the haunting. 

Well, it does. And it’s actually kind of ironic because they’re there, as I mentioned, you know, that the white witch of Rose Hall, if people if people look it up, they’ll find, you know, dozens of mentions. For example, I have a book here on my shelf called The World’s Most Haunted Places. And, you know, Rose Hall is mentioned as one of the world’s most haunted places in this book. But. By by this supposed authority on ghosts. But in fact, if you do some research into it, you start sorting out the facts and fiction. You realize that any Parmer cannot haunt Rose Hall because she’s a fiction. The person never existed. 

Yeah. That’s a great way to debunk a haunting proof. Pretty much. And they own the coffin. 

Ben, you’re on TV all the time. You’re out there as a skeptic, but you’re looking into these claims not as a debunker. You’re not going into a scene saying there’s absolutely no way a haunting can exist. You’re on this show called Monster Quest, right? 

Yeah, yeah. I’ve been on on several of those, actually. 

And disappearance when you’re on coming up. It’s about a case of sighting of a chupacabra. What is a chupacabra? 

Yeah, basically, the chupacabra is a of the the sort of quasi vampiric monster that is that some people see it from Hispanic folklore. People say it’s a real creature that attacks livestock, particularly goats, but also cattle and cats and lot of rocks. And it’s been seen around the Caribbean surge in Puerto Rico and it’s spread to other Spanish speaking areas. 

These are those cases where cattle are like bloodless and dried out and killed an evil kind of mutilated livestock stuff. 

Yeah, oftentimes that’s all the evidence that people claim for the you macabre. If you say a rancher goes out and he’s serving as his heartland and he finds an animal that is, you know, mysteriously, whatever mysteriously is in his mind, dead or drained of blood, oftentimes bull attributed to the Tubac over. 

And you’re on Monster Quest investigating one of these claims. 

Yeah. In fact, the episode airs, I think last I heard, it was July 2013. And yeah, I actually flew out with the TV crew to a place called Cuero Texas, which is about an hour outside of San Antonio. And yeah, I actually went out in the field and investigated the chupacabra sightings and and the the alleged severed head of a tuba, Cobbora. So it’s pretty interesting. 

And what channel is that? So our listeners can tune in? 

That would be the History Channel. 

You’re so quirky, Ben. I tried to make your life. Right now I have a big clown nose on Jim Underdown. Well, don’t tell anybody. I’ll keep it secret. 

What I’m getting at, Ben, is that you you’ve kind of designed your life to look into these quirky, odd, amazing things people believe in. You take them seriously enough to actually look into them. You’re not just sitting at home kind of as an armchair skeptic grouch saying there ain’t no such thing. You’re going out there and you’re actually looking into the stuff. Still, you remain a skeptic. 

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I you know, I share that point of view with my colleague Joe Nichols, who, of course, has been on before. And he’s you know, he and I are are among the investigators there at CSI and for first ever inquiring. And that’s that’s the basic premise, is that, you know, neither one of us go into these investigations saying, well, this is ridiculous. This can happen. You know, ghost don’t exist. Where else? Because you don’t know unless you look. So it’s always important to me to go into these things with an open mind. Now, that doesn’t mean that you accept anything as evidence, but it means that you go into it, you know, trying to bring science and skepticism to it. 

And you’re not just bringing science and skepticism to these claims. You’re bringing it to new audiences under the guise of, well, call it stealth skepticism. You’re not just out there preaching skepticism to skeptics, but you’re talking to people who might not actually be skeptical. 

Yeah, you’re exactly right. I mean, I have to say that, you know, I mean, I’ve been involved with Psych Up and CSI in various incarnations for for over ten years now as an investigator and writer and editor and stuff. And one of my main complaints is that a lot of it is just basically preaching to the choir. It’s like, you know, telling people who already agree with you about, you know, what what you believe and think. And so that’s one reason why I and then some. That’s good. I don’t I don’t knock that. But I think it’s also important to sort of bring the message to people who wouldn’t necessarily encounter more critical thinking and skepticism. 

So and you’re doing that now with the website Lifesciences dot com with weekly columns, right? 

Yeah, I’ve actually been on on live science dot com as their so-called bad science columnist. I didn’t choose that title, but I guess it works for about two years now. And I have a weekly column and basically every week I sort of turn my skeptical and critical eye to whether, you know, everything from UFO to Bigfoot to alternative medicine to, you know, a wide variety of hoaxes and just just things that need things that need, you know, more critical thinking that aren’t necessarily in the paranormal realm. 

Right. And. Audience, it’s not like the skeptic community if there is such a thing, I think there is. You were just at the the amazing meeting. You gave a session on investigations. That’s for those of us who are really into skeptical inquiry of the paranormal. But your life science stuff is not for that audience exclusively. 

Absolutely. I mean, that’s that was the whole reason I agreed to do the column was because, you know, it’s out there on life science. It’s not you know why it’s skepticism. It’s life science. Because ultimately, of course, you know, the methods of science and skepticism are one and the same. And so it was important to to try and get out a skeptical message, you know, using using a science to it. 

So and plus it also the column is all often syndicators like Yahoo! News. Right. So it really goes out quite a ways. All right. 

Tell me about this thing you did at the amazing meeting. This is James Randi’s annual convention that attracts people from all over the world. It’s massive. Usually in Vegas, you you did a workshop on how to be a paranormal investigator. 

Yeah. Basically, what I had done is I had well, the story that, you know, again, I’ve been doing this for a long time. And oftentimes after my talks on various talks, you know, Ghostwood, Cocroft circles, what have you, is people who come up to me and say, well, this is all really interesting, you know, how do you actually do these investigations? And. And I could give them a little short of their short answer, but I. I never really had a good solid, you know, a good answer for them. And so I developed a what I call a scientific kernel investigations workshop. Mm hmm. And normally that that the workshop I designed is actually for about four hours. I shorten it down to two hours for R&D meeting in Las Vegas. And it was a sold out workshop. And we kept it out a hundred people because I wanted to still be sort of, you know, intimate. And you’ll have more feedback. 

Right. The buzz online is that this was really a highlight of the amazing meeting. Yes. 

I got good feedback on it. And it was again, it was basically what I’d done is I showed people investigation blueprint. And I said, you know, this is basically how I go about investigating these things. And then I also wrapped up with them case studies, you know, for my own investigation, saying, OK, let’s figure out, you know, you know, here’s this mystery. How would we go about solving it? And that’s indeed pretty popular with people. 

Do you really think, though, that people sitting in the audience at a session of a convention or a conference can walk away after learning how to be a paranormal investigator, actually knowing how to do it? In other words, isn’t there much more to it than what you can learn in a session? 

Absolutely. Absolutely. And I said that from the start. I said, look, you know, I again, I’ve been doing this for for over a decade now. And and I could the best I could do is sort of give a rough blueprint and sort of give people guidelines in terms of, you know, critical thinking fallacies that are often involved. And there’s so much more to it. But, you know, for for people who are just sort of casually interested or really want to sort of get into it, it’s a good primer. 

Do you really? In a perfect world, do you really want well-meaning nature skeptics out there investigating every claim, or do you want to kind of, in quotes, leave it to the professionals? 

Well, you know, that’s a good question. And, you know, oftentimes, as you know, one of the problems that professional skeptics come about is layman armchair knee-jerk skeptics who who just sort of dismiss anything out of hand. And then, you know, basically it gives all skeptics a bad name because they’re so busy debunking things. So what I’m hoping to do is at least give people the basics and say, okay, look, you know, there are no scientific good ways of investigating these things and here they are. But, you know, there’s much more to it than that. And don’t just you don’t just take the blueprint, run out and think that you’re going to do a whole lot of stuff cause there’s a lot involved in it. 

But if you had your way, you would have an army of skeptical paranormal investigators out there kind of as the alternative to the ghost hunters movement almost. 

Yeah. I mean, I, I wish that the skeptical community had the resources and the interest and the manpower to to do that. It’s it’s sort of a sad state of affairs that, you know, honestly, there’s only a handful of us that are doing this. 

You mean professional skeptics who go out there using the best investigative methods to explore this stuff? 

Yeah, I mean, because, again, part of the problem is that anybody can call themselves a ghost hunter. And you see this on TV because anybody does call themselves the ghost hunter or investigator or what have you. 

Yeah. Former plumbers who have those tools of the trade. 

Right. Right. And yeah, the tools are the right word. And so you just have to you know, you have to tell people like, look, there’s more to it. 

And the problem is when the public watches these shows, they don’t even skim the surface. They don’t that aren’t even aware of how bad the methodology is and how bad the science is. So they see these shows are like. Look at that, they’re actually two investigations and, you know, I’m throwing things at my TV thing. 

No, they’re not. If they get the joke. 

I get your point about that. It’s not just it’s not just about training people to be knee jerk skeptics, but you do want an alternative to those paranormal kind of mongers out there, right? 

Absolutely. Absolutely. Because because. Because, again, you know, if people aren’t exposed to too good skepticism and real science, then they’ll mistake whatever this UNTV as being real investigation. And it’s not. 

Also coming up for you, also for me, is appearance’s at Dragon Con this August. That’s really exciting. 

That’s right. That’s right. It’s the premiere sort of gaming skeptic track. You know, they’ve got deafens. Mike left. I heard 35000 people, some of them dressed as everything from Harry Potter to Darth Vader to, you know, slutty ninjas walking around. 

It should be said, Dragon Con is one of the largest pop culture gaming comic book conventions. And both you and I are involved in the sessions involving skepticism, which is new for Dragon Con. And if we had our way, there’d be a skeptical component to all these conventions out there. 

Yeah. I mean, this this is this here is actually the first one where they actually have a full fledged skeptic track. And last year they had sort of a science flash skeptic’s track. And I’m pleased to report, you know, I was there last year and I was one of the speakers there. And I’m pleased to report that it was so popular. There was such a good response to the skeptics that they actually decided to make it its own track. And so that’s that’s good news. 

And Derek, Colin Duno deserves a big kudo’s there. He’s from Skeptic Kaldi in the Skeptic magazine. He’s really spearheaded this whole effort at Dragon Con. 

Yeah. He’s done a fantastic job. And I’ve you know, I’ve known Derek for a long time, and they they do a great job there. 

I want to finish up by talking about one of the most exciting things I think you’re up to these days, which is your new board game. How quirky are you? You’re a guy who’s invented a board game. 

There you go. In fact, funny you should mention, it’s titled with Dragon Con because Dragon Con will be the official world premiere of my new board game. 

And it’s called Playing God, Playing God, the Plural of Our Game of Divine Domination. 

All right. Thomas and I kind of gamed that board game with you early on when you were developing it. And I had a hoot back then. 

I can only imagine it’s gotten better since it has you know, it’s it’s been refined. The rules have been tweaked. And basically, it’s it’s sort of a version of, like theological risk where there’s two to five players and each of them can can be a guy. You can be, you know, Jesus or Moses or Kali or Bhutto would have you or you can make up your own gods. You can be a flying spaghetti monster. The cult of Oprah, the almighty dollar. What have you. And basically, the goal is to kill off or convert other God followers, you know, just like everyone else. 

And during the game, you learn all kinds of odd facts about religion. 

Absolutely. You know, you can kill off followers with with like the you know, the earth elements. You fire air and water and also plagues and locusts. And there there’s definitely a satirical game. I mean, it’s not meant to offend anybody, but it’s it’s definitely got an edge to it. 

And I think I think it should be out in September. 

Well, it’s not meant to offend anybody. I feel fairly certain that the skeptic, the humanist, the atheist community will get the biggest kick out of it. A diehard faith heads, as Richard Dawkins would call them, won’t be sitting down playing gods. 

Here you go. You know, I basically developed it as part of the we basically the channel for my disgust at people killing each other in the name of religion. And so it’s it’s really just a way of sort of saying, look, you know, we don’t need to kill each other for each other’s beliefs. Just, you know, several settle your differences on a tabletop instead of the battlefield. 

I love it if you’d like more information about playing gods or how to get it. You can do so through our website. Point of inquiry dot org. Ben. I really appreciate you being back on the show. And we’ll have you back on a few more times over the next few months talking about playing God, because I want our listeners to really enjoy this game as I have. Thanks for being on point of inquiry, Ben Radford. Thanks for having me on. 

You’ve seen the headlines, Bill seeks to protect students from liberal bias. The right time for an Islamic reformation. Kansas School Board redefined science. These stories sum up the immense challenge facing those of us who defend rational thinking, science and secular values. What one adviser to the Bush administration dismissed as the reality based community. Who could have imagined that reality would need defenders? The educational and advocacy work of the Center for Inquiry is more essential than ever. And your support is more essential than ever. Show your commitment to science, reason and secular values. By becoming a friend of the center today, whether you are interested in the work of psychology and skeptical Inquirer magazine, the Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry Magazine, the Commission for Scientific Medicine or Center for Inquiry on Campus. By becoming a friend of the center, you’ll help strengthen our impact. If you’re just learning about CFI, take a look at our Web site. W w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We hosted regional and international conferences, college courses and nationwide campus outreach. You’ll also find out about our new representation at the United Nations, an important national media appearances. We cannot pursue these projects without your help. Please become a friend of the center today by calling one 800 eight one eight seven zero seven one or visiting w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We look forward to working with you to enlarge the reality based community. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of Points of Inquiry to get involved with an online conversation about today’s episode. Go to our online discussion forums at Center for Inquiry dot net slash forums. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.