It’s easy to have a laugh at the expense of all those ghost hunters you see on TV. With their flashy gadgets and dramatic reactions any time the night-vision camera captures a mote of dust in the air, it’s little wonder that the field of paranormal investigations has long been consigned to the garbage heap of pseudoscience.
And yet, over the decades, plenty of scientists and science-minded institutions have dipped their toes into the murky waters of the paranormal. Harvard’s own William James, who helped found the school’s psychology department, was obsessed with the supernatural throughout his career. Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle — a trained physician, don’t forget — spent the latter part of his life (and much of his credibility) as a defender of spiritualism. In the 1920s, the venerable Scientific American was open-minded enough to offer a long-standing reward, up to $15,000 at one point, to anyone who could provide conclusive evidence of ghosts. Even Einstein once attended a séance (although he did not report any spooky action).
Today, a surprising number of colleges and universities offer opportunities to study and even conduct research in parapsychology. And some scientists, although not many, have devoted their own time and resources to studying the paranormal — by becoming ghost hunters themselves. Noah Leigh is one such researcher. With an undergraduate degree in biology and a master’s in epidemiology and cell biology, Leigh is a career scientist who applies his scientific training to investigating the paranormal. In 2007, he founded his own team, Paranormal Investigators of Milwaukee (PIM). Their work is nothing you’d see on TV, but if it was it would be more like MythBusters than Ghost Hunters.
“We have a ‘debunk-first’ mentality, and that’s reflected in our cases,” he says. “There are a handful of teams out there who use methods similar to ours, but they’re few and far between.” PIM operates as a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit, which means the group doesn’t charge for its work or make money off of the outreach programs they conduct at libraries and other venues. They don’t use mediums or psychics, and while they do use cameras, digital audio recorders and other technical instruments to support their investigations, their most important tool is one you don’t see often in the field: the scientific method.
“We do bring more scientific rigor to the process. We make actual reports — a lot of investigators don’t — and we document as much as we can,” Leigh says. “We use equipment, but not the stuff you see on TV. So much of that is ridiculously expensive and useless most of the time. Low-quality equipment is subject to interference and gives you lots of false positives. Plenty of investigators are fine with that, it makes for more drama, but that’s not how we operate.” Continue reading from Discover Magazine