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Analysis > Monday, 14 March 2011 05:03:19 EST

Paranormal Investigation Done Right... And Wrong.

Keywords: paranormal, aliens, video

I came across this interesting looking show the other week, and it looked like it would be a great opportunity to record it to my computer so that I could analyze it at my leisure and see what I have to say about it. 

The show is called Fact Or Faked: Paranormal Files

Fact Or Faked Logo

In concept, this is very much the kind of television programming I'd like to see more of.  This is a group of six investigators gathered together by a former FBI agent in order to investigate paranormal claims.  This stalwart band of paranormal sleuths is introduced during the opening credits as follows:

Ben: Former FBI Agent
Bill: Lead Scientist
Jael: Journalist
Larry: Effects Specialist
Chi-Lan: Photography Expert
Austin: Stunt Expert

I'm a little concerned by the "Lead Scientist" designation for Bill.  Without any more information, calling somebody a "Lead Scientist" is absolutely meaningless.  What's his expertise? What are his credentials? 

I looked up Bill's bio on the Fact or Fake website:

Bill is very experienced in field investigating. He is considered a leader in the field of paranormal phenomena. He has a substantial following in the paranormal community through terrestrial radio, webcasts, television productions, independently released DVDs, and live presentations. With over twenty years of experience investigating everything from UFOs to ghosts and Cryptids, he provides the team with an encyclopedic knowledge of the unexplained. While looking for answers to some of the mysteries the team encounters, Bill works to bring in new technology to enhance their efforts. He balances a day job as a video engineering consultant with his job as part of the team.

When given the opportunity, I often tell people that I'm a Computer Scientist.  If I'm asked, however, I'll freely admit that I only use that term for the purpose of making me look good.  There's no solid definition of what it takes to be a "Computer Scientist", but as somebody who extensively studied computers in college, and who works in the field, I feel that I can justify using the term.

But in the end, since there's no solid definition, calling myself a "Computer Scientist" is actually quite meaningless.  It just suits my sense of humour to use it.

I think, though, that I can make a better case for giving myself the title "Computer Scientist" than Bill can make for calling himself a "Scientist" at all (also an unregulated term with no real meaning on it's own).  His main claim to being a "scientist" seems to be that he's done a lot of "investigations".  He doesn't seem to have any formal education in any of the sciences.

Of course, we still have to evaluate any of his claims on an individual basis, it would be a fallacy to suggest that he must be wrong about any claim simply because he doesn't have the expertise he pretends to.  Still, it concerns me that this is the team member that they've designated as the "go-to" guy for all their scientific information and advice.

I also became concerned when I heard Ben's criteria for what makes a good case to investigate:

Basically, he's looking for cases where the footage is compelling, where the witnesses are credible, and where there are good opportunities to test the claims.

I only really agree with the last of those.

What does it matter if the claim is compelling?  Certainly it makes for good television.... but if you're serious about investigating the paranormal, then claims should be evaluated based on their merits, not how you feel about them.

As for witnesses that are credible... well, it sounds like a good policy.  Certainly, if you know that somebody is a well known liar that's something that should weigh into your considerations.  But other than cases like that, determining somebody's credibility is not a straightforward task, and any determination you make is bound to be an extremely subjective one.  Using "credibility" as one of your first judgments makes very little sense to me.

As for the testing part, well, yes indeedy!  That's exactly what I want to see in a paranormal investigation!

Anyway, the team divides itself to work on two simultaneous investigations.  The first investigation looks at video of a supposed "ghost car":

Very impressive!  So how did the team do on this one?  Ben, Jael, and Austin teamed up to tackle this case, and I'll give credit where credit's due: they did a good job on it.  They talked to the officer, attempted to replicate the stunts involved, and managed to pull it off.

Here's their duplication of the u-turn and speedy getaway:

Nothing paranormal about it.  If you manage to pull off that kind of stunt, you'll definitely gain some serious distance from your pursuers.

And what about the fence trick?  Well, according to the officer, it seemed like some of the bottom fasteners for the fence had been removed.  As the team clearly demonstrated, in such a case it's perfectly plausible that a car could have just driven right through:

Good work guys!  I give you an A!

Now let's look at Bill, Larry, and Chi-Lan's investigation.  They were looking into a case of mysterious lights in the night sky:

This video required some more discussion than the other one.  For example, could they be military aircraft or flares?  Bill doesn't think so, and he explains why:

He does a side by side comparison between the video in question and a video of military flares being dropped, and proclaims that they're so obviously different.  But he does not acknowledge that this video of flares was taken from an extremely close angle to the aircraft, which would obviously cause the flares to look like they're falling much faster.  If you see something falling from a great distance away, however, it won't seem to be moving much at all.

In any case, they're excited about this one, as shown by this clip:

Well, there you go... the guy sounds genuinely excited, it doesn't sound like he's faking this... what more do you need in order to determine that he's credible?

Anyway, they go down there and talk to this guy, get his statement that he saw these lights and doesn't know what they were, and they get him to lend them the camera that he used to take this footage so that they can replicate everything as closely as possible.  So far so good.

The first test they perform is using a laser pointer on a pane of glass to generate the effects of lights in the sky:

Bill uses his laser and concludes that it's unworkable because while he can get the three lights by adjusting the angle, he nevertheless can't get the same movement as in the film, and keeps getting tripped up by flaring when he tries to get the lights to do similar movements.

So he gives up.... just like that.  He seems to be completely comfortable with writing off the laser possibility after just one try.

Just off the top of my head, he could have tried holding three laser pointers straight on so they don't manifest duplicates, and then just turn them on and off for effect.  I think that might have duplicated the original video well enough.

Anyway, on to the next experiment: hanging lights from balloons:

Oh man!  I would love to do something where I'm required to shout "BEGIN HYPERJUMP! BEGIN HYPERJUMP!" into a microphone.  I'm going to have to work that into my next podcast!!

Anyway, here again our "lead scientist" is happy to just let it go there and not make any further attempts.  He could have, for example, changed the kind of lighting being used.  Perhaps attach a flair to each balloon to see whether the light it emits is consistent with the lights from the video.

Or how about thinking up other possibilities for faking such a video?  Perhaps something involving video editing software?  If skilled people can make impressive looking CG flying saucers, then certainly a few points of light wouldn't be a problem.

But no such luck, Bill is completely happy to give up on this track after failing to duplicate the results with a couple of half-hearted attempts.

Okay, so what's next?  Well, now they conduct a "night investigation":

Somewhere, right now, Ben Radford is facepalming.  This is exactly the kind of thing he warned against in his excellent book "Scientific Paranormal Investigation", which I reviewed back in June.  Essentially, they're walking around in the dark and getting spooked by noises.  What exactly is the point of that?

Bill said that they were looking for "Trace Evidence", like remnants of flares.  Okay... but why couldn't he do that in daylight hours?  Isn't it easier to find stuff when the sun is shining?  Who walks around aimlessly in the dark with a metal detector?  And then they're standing around jumping at noises that their equipment apparently didn't pick up... they put sound effects in there at the proper places but you can pretty much tell that they're canned.  So we don't get to know what they were hearing, and their little excursion came to nothing.

They had more luck, however, with the cameras pointing at the sky.  Here's their report on that:

Apparently all three investigators could see the object with their naked eyes.  Pretty interesting result, but Bill's conclusions seem odd.

He says that it was moving far too fast to be any kind of aircraft that we know of... but with just a light it's kind of hard to know how far away it is, so any ideas of speed could be an illusion.  He also says that it was far to silent to be a helicopter, but helicopters don't really make much of a sound until they get pretty close.  Bill said that he was hearing a "humming" sound shortly before they spotted the light, is it possible that was the distant whirr of a helicopter's blades?

Whatever the case, it looks like they've got something interesting here.  So, did they follow up on it?  Nope!  They just packed everything back up and headed for home.

They could have checked with the local air base to see if anything was flying that night.  They could have consulted aeronautic experts and see what they thought about these lights.  Perhaps talk to an expert in atmosphere effects that can cause these kinds of lights as well.  There's a similar case I remember hearing about of lights that regularly appear over the horizon at a certain location and move about in very spooky ways, but it turns out that they're caused by car headlights in the distance being distorted in the atmosphere.

They were nowhere near to exhausting all of their options for investigation, but that didn't seem to bother them.  They were happy to just pack everything up, go home, and give themselves a pat on the back.

Oh, and they also determined that the guy who took the original video, Jeff Willis, was telling the truth by using special software to analyze his voice:

It's not even a full polygraph machine - which itself is a completely useless technology.  This is just analyzing sound waves... I don't put a lot of stock in the results of this program, even if our former FBI agent Ben does.

But I tentatively believe that Jeff was telling the truth in any case and that he really did see some lights in the distance.  I just think that running his voice through this program is a completely useless measure that makes the results sound much more certain than they really are.

Anyway, given that the team only went through the motions of a half-assed investigation and couldn't muster the effort to try different things or follow up on anything, I'm assuming that former FBI agent Ben will have some harsh words for them, right?

Well, I guess we can see how low Ben's standards really are for what should be considered a "really great job".

Well, my standards are a little more reasonable.  I give them an F.

I realize that you can't always find the answers you're looking for, but if you're going to call yourself a professional investigator, then I expect you to actually perform a thorough job where you exhaust all reasonable lines of investigation.  Don't tell me that the job's over and there's nothing more to do when there are so many glaring options available to you!

Doing a half-assed job won't get you results.  If you want to actually solve mysteries, you've got to spend the time to work at it.  It doesn't look to me like they're taking this investigation seriously when they pack up and go home after one night just trying a couple of things.

To me, the part where they actually solved the mystery of the ghost car was far more rewarding to watch than the pseudo investigation of the lights where they didn't solve anything or even bother trying much of anything at all.

I'd argue that solved mysteries make for much better television than unsolved ones.


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