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Episode Notes for
Historical Ghost Investigations
Part II — Sinking the Watertown


SS Watertown famous ghost picture

This week, MonsterTalk continues its two-part discussion of historical ghost investigations. Blake Smith describes his investigation into a famous photo that allegedly shows two dead sailors floating off the side of a 1920’s oil tanker. Methodology for conducting historical investigation is detailed, using Ben Radford’s upcoming book on scientific paranormal investigation as a basis for the talk.

Did two sailors haunt their fellow shipmates? Does the photo really show two ghosts? Find out the answers in this informative conclusion — and find out how you can solve your own cases!

In this episode

Blake Smith’s Watertown research is in the April (UK) and May (US) editions of Fortean Times.

Much of the material for these Episode 15 & 16 of MonsterTalk come from Ben Radford’s upcoming book on Scientific Paranormal Investigation.

The following is a brief sample of Ben’s insights which come from his own experiences in this field:

General Versus Specific Claims

As an investigator, you will be dealing with specific cases and claims. For example, general claims might be that house X is haunted, or person Y is psychic. Specific claims would be that a ghost was reported or photographed on one or more specific occasions at house X, or psychic Y can read volunteer’s minds. General claims are not testable or falsifiable (you cannot prove or disprove the existence of Bigfoot or psychic powers, but you can prove or disprove specific claimed examples or reports). One of the most important things is to ask the right questions; you must be able to focus on the relevant issues and know what to look for.

In many cases what seems like one simple question must actually be broken down into several different ones for independent analysis. For example, say a published report by a writer (Person A) quotes a psychic, ghost investigator, or eyewitness (Person B) as describing a ghost experience (information X).

To begin investigating, we first need to examine all the components of the claim: 1) Did Person B actually give Information X? Who heard him/her say that? Is there any independent proof or written record of it, or is it just A’s assertion? What, exactly, was the information? It could be that the claim is wrong; she said something different, and the story got better in the retelling. 2) Is the Information X accurate or plausible? For example, are they describing something that they physically could not have seen from their alleged location?

In sum, you need to not only verify that the claim about person A’s information is accurate (that is, she really said what it was claimed she said), but also that the information itself is accurate (information X correctly matches independently gathered information about Person B). Do not assume anything; check out everything.

Once you have chosen a mystery to investigate, you should research the topic thoroughly, on three levels: A) the general topic; B) the localized version of the topic; and C) the specific sighting, event, or phenomenon.

For example, if you are looking into a Bigfoot sighting on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, you need to not only learn as much as you can about that specific incident (C), but you also should research the history of Bigfoot sightings in Pennsylvania (B), as well as have a general knowledge (A) of Bigfoot sightings, claims, hoaxes, etc.

If you are investigating a local missing persons case where a psychic detective claims to have solved the crime, you should find out all you can about that missing persons case (C), but also do some investigation into the psychic detective herself (B), as well as have a good understanding of the skeptical literature about psychics detectives (A), their history, claims, and methods.

Types of mysteries and investigations

There are basic types of investigations you’ll encounter as a paranormal investigator. These divisions are not hard and fast, and some investigations fall into more than one category, but each of them requires a slightly different focus.

Historical mysteries

Historical cases are those in which an unexplained event or phenomena happened at some time in the past, usually at a specific place, and is not currently active. This might include the Great Pyramid of Ghiza, the Amityville Horror case, the Nasca lines of Peru, the Bermuda Triangle, the 1947 Roswell Crash site, and so on. My investigation of the Pokémon Panic (Chapter 11) is a historical mystery, as were parts of my chupacabra investigation (Chapter 14). These cases are often solved largely through careful research and analysis. While I always advocate actually going to the place where the mystery occurred, it is not always practical or useful in historical mysteries. For example it’s unlikely you will uncover any new information by visiting the Great Pyramid, or taking a cruise through the Bermuda Triangle.

Forensic research mysteries

Forensic research mysteries are similar to historical mysteries, though not necessarily tied to a specific place. Such investigations might include investigating a psychic detective’s claim of having solved an old crime, or looking at Nostradamus’s prophecies, or re-examining a person’s claim of alien abduction. “The psychic and the serial killer case” case is an example of a forensic research mystery. Like historical mysteries, these cases are often solved by attention to detailed research and analysis—discovering a “smoking gun” hidden in some obscure newspaper report, or double-checking facts to find that primary sources contradict the “official version.” These cases can be especially challenging because the investigator must rely on his or her research skills, and unlike historical mysteries, there may be no actual “place” to visit to further investigate or do original research: it’s all in books, files, newspaper reports, original documents, and so on. However, all investigations—every single one, no matter the subject matter—begins with good background research, and sometimes the mystery is solved by doing little more than reading what you found.


Episode Transcript

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The views expressed on this program are not necessarily the views of the Skeptics Society or Skeptic magazine.

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