Amateur Paranormal Research and Investigation Groups
Doing ‘Sciencey’ Things
by Sharon Hill
A study of 1,000 websites shows how amateur groups use technical jargon and
equipment as symbols of what is “scientific” while actually promoting the
paranormal and not adhering to any real scientific principles of investigation.
In the early 2000s, a new kind of paranormal-themed show appeared on
television. This “reality-based” genre of programs featured individuals or teams
of nonscientists who undertook investigations of alleged paranormal phenomena.
The Syfy network’s Ghost Hunters, the most popular of these shows in the
United States, boasts over two million viewers per episode (Seidman 2009) and
has launched two spinoff shows. The show’s group, The Atlantic Paranormal
Society (TAPS), directly influenced the formation of other similar groups (Brown
2008). Within a few years, multiple cable television networks hosted shows that
portrayed people directing and participating in self-styled investigations into
UFOs, monster reports, and strange, spooky activity around the world.
Also in the first decade of the twenty-first century, amateur research and
investigation groups (ARIGs) sprang up in communities across the United States.
Many represented their activities as scientific. Interested in seeing how ARIG
ideas about being scientific compared to those of the scientific community, I
conducted a review of 1,000 websites representing ARIGs in the United States
(Hill 2010). How many are there and in what manner do these groups use
science to promote themselves and fulfill their mission?
ARIGs are unique in that they examine areas on which no organized academic
research or inquiry is focused—perceived paranormal events. They are led by
and composed of people who have little or no scientific training. In these two
ways, they significantly differ from other amateur science programs for which
nonscientists gather specific material data for established science-based research
programs.1 ARIGs are typically hobbyist groups held together by their interest in
the subject. Members are serious about their research activities, but jobs limit
their participation. Involvement in these groups is an example of a “serious
leisure” activity (Stebbins 1992): like-minded individuals diligently pursue an
activity to fulfill certain social and personal aspects of their lives.
I limited my study to groups who use the Internet. The Internet provides an
efficient way for ARIGs to recruit new members, exchange information, and
solicit cases from the public to investigate. ARIG websites reveal their mission,
goals, methods, philosophy, and typical results. While these groups are also
marketed through local word of mouth or media appearances, a web presence
often provides the first point of contact for those who may be seeking help to
explain a suspected paranormal experience.
Considering the above observations, I define ARIGs by the following
• Not under the auspices of an academic institution or headed by working
• Focused on investigation of unexplained or paranormal events such as reports
of hauntings, mystery animals, unidentified aerial objects, natural anomalies,
and parapsychological phenomena
• Undertaking activities that do not provide a primary form of income for
• Self-forming and independent (but may hold affiliation with a larger
• Promoted via the Internet
• Characterizing ARIGs in the United States
Prior to my research, word of mouth in the paranormal and skeptical
communities suggested that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of ghost
hunter, UFO seeker, and monster tracker groups across the country, but no one
had attempted to formally count them all. Counting these groups is difficult
because they are ephemeral—as easy to let die as to set up.
Before social networking tools, it was difficult to connect with others who were
interested in fringe topics. Such groups historically recruited via bulletin boards
and advertisements; they were maintained through mailed newsletters, desktop
journals, and physical gatherings. The Internet lowered the barriers to group
I collected 1,600 ARIG web addresses through various Internet search methods
and index sites. At this point, I realized there were many more I had yet to
count. I accepted that 1,600 would serve as representative of the population,
and the list was randomized and numbered. Information was then collected on
the first 1,000 active sites. Data collected included the group name, home state,
subject category, and scientificity (whether or not they claimed to use science or
scientific methods), as well as several features observed that were common (use
of psychics) or unique (specialized in cases with children or animals, for
My results showed that almost all U.S. states had four or more groups active at
the time of the survey. There was at least one group in every state, with the
overall numbers roughly correlated to population density across the United
States. Ohio and Pennsylvania had the highest tallies at eighty-one and eighty,
respectively. Because many groups will travel to adjoining states, there are
overlapping “coverage” areas among ARIGs.
ARIG subject areas resolved into four categories: ghosts, cryptozoology, UFOs,
and general paranormal (including natural anomaly occurrences or cases of
alleged psi phenomena). Values are shown in Figure 1. Many groups stated they
would investigate all categories and were labeled “paranormal.” Out of 1,000
groups, 879 identified with the category of “ghosts.” An additional eighty-one
included ghosts within the broad “paranormal” category. These counts affirm that
ghost hunting is incredibly popular and trendy.
Only five specialized in UFOs or UFOs in combination with other anomalous
phenomena (but not ghosts). One of the five is the Mutual UFO Network
(MUFON), which claims thousands of members with a director plus investigators
in every state. (Several states are combined under “New England.”) Over the
past few decades, UFO research consolidated under MUFON, which provided
unified methods of investigation, training, state-to-state cooperation, and sharing
In contrast to the UFO research centralization, the ghost groups are smaller,
diffuse, and independent. There are a few preeminent groups with which
individual groups can be affiliated, such as TAPS or Ghost Adventures Crew
(GAC)2; however, they do not direct group functions but rather only provide a set
of standards to which groups must adhere to maintain affiliation.
Thirty-five groups specialize in cryptozoology, mostly focusing on Bigfoot reports.
Cryptozoology groups may be local or have members dispersed across the
country. There is no overarching organization.
I used the Internet browser’s search feature on each site’s main page to locate
the text string “scien” returning results for “science” and “scientific,” if it existed,
on the page. Use and context of these terms determined the group’s
“scientificity.” If the use of these words was not positive (i.e., was anti-science),
then the scientificity was counted as “no.” If positive or neutral, the scientificity
was “yes.” If the terms were not used at all, scientificity was labeled “not
A total of 526 ARIG websites (52.6 percent) displayed scientificity by explicitly
using “science” or “scientific” in reference to their mission, methods, or goals. An
additional twenty-seven sites used “scientific” to refer to their equipment only.
Twenty designated their group as “semi-” or “quasi-” scientific or strongly
suggested science by use of oblique references such as “not an exact science.”
Only nineteen ARIGs were completely nonscientific or anti-science, advocating a
completely psychical or subjective approach. The remaining 40.8 percent of sites
did not specify. (See Figure 2.)
ARIGs’ ‘Scientific’ Methodology
Indicator surveys consistently show that “science” is held in high regard in our
society (National Science Foundation 2009). Every party with a claim wants
science to support its side. This, I suspect, is a main reason why the majority of
ARIGs attempt to cultivate a serious, science-like image. Manner, language, and
procedure of science are imitated in order to appear sophisticated and credible
(Degele 2005; Haack 2007).
Two primary means ARIGs use to portray a scientific image are jargon and use of
technology. Use of science jargon, or “scientese” (Haard et al. 2004), was
common to ARIGs that exhibited scientificity. Several sites have specific sections
pertaining to the “science” of their activities. Commonly used terms include
words such as frequency, resonance, energy, quantum, magnetic, environmental,
and electricity. Yet the sites lack operational (or even common) definitions for
these terms. Vague and confusing language is ubiquitous: ghosts “use energy,”
are made up of “magnetic fields,” or are associated with a “quantum state.”
Scholarly references to scientific works are nonexistent, but Einstein and Edison
are frequently and explicitly connected to current ideas about communication
with paranormal entities as if credibility can be bolstered by naming people
popularly associated with science and technology.
The word scientific is also used liberally. Certain groups will proclaim their
“scientific methods” citing a “scientific approach” and “scientific research” to
obtain a “scientific solution” with “scientific proof.”
ARIGs that claimed to use “a scientific method” equated the process most often
with a systematic protocol of observation and collection of empirical data. ARIG
methodology, as outlined on their websites, includes the following: eyewitness
interviews, site visit(s) with equipment setup, collection of data in usually one
but possibly multiple days and/or nights, analysis of the data, presentation of the
results to the client (if there is one), and a write-up or record of the
For ghost investigations, “scientific” collection of data consists of gathering
temperature readings, electromagnetic field anomalies, photographs, sound
recordings, and other “energy” readings. This process often includes highly
subjective methods such as psychics, dowsing rods, and Ouija boards to help
guide investigators in equipment setup. The most common evidence cited by
ARIGs for hauntings was electronic voice phenomena (EVP), where indistinct
sounds recorded during the investigation are presumed to be communication
with entities. I was hard pressed to find any data tables, graphs, maps, or
documentation of the results, which one would expect to find in a typical
To establish a body of knowledge as “scientific” and to maintain science as a
unique and respected endeavor, the scientific community subscribes to an ethos
defined by ideals or norms (Ziman 2000). Merton (1942) established these norms
as communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism.
The first of Merton’s norms, communalism, encompasses sharing knowledge and
data, allowing others to reproduce the work. While ARIGs post their investigation
reports online; these reports do not at all resemble scientific reports. Typically,
they are not detailed enough for others to duplicate the process, are
unreferenced, do not build on the work of others or any established scientific
knowledge, and are not valuable beyond perhaps being a record of the
investigators’ impressions on that occasion. Many investigation results are
confidential on the request of the client, therefore no findings are released.
The use of psychics or sensitives violates Merton’s norm of universalism since
only certain gifted individuals can “sense” the sprit present or communicate with
the entity. The nongifted cannot confirm or deny such an observation. In
haunting cases, the investigator is encouraged to be his or her own instrument,
recording psychic or sensory impressions. This constitutes a full-on invitation to
engage in biased, subjective, and unverifiable reporting.
The most egregious error made by ARIGs is their bias, which not only violates
the norm of disinterestedness but also negates the entire investigation and its
conclusions. While claiming open-mindedness, ARIGs are composed of those who
hold a preconceived view of a phenomenon and set out to support it (Potts
2004). In stark contrast to scientific writing, ARIG websites will frequently state
certainty in their goals or conclusions. Their mission is to “prove” a phenomenon
they believe exists or to provide “irrefutable” evidence of same. Even more
pretentious are those who wish to “adapt existing scientific laws to reports of the
paranormal” or create a “bridge between the science and the paranormal.” That
language is a signal of how far removed ARIG participants really are from the
established scientific community.
Skepticism is often given token lip service. Several ARIGs say they welcome
skeptics. However, what open-minded skepticism really means to them is that
one is open to the paranormal conclusion as the correct conclusion. The ARIG
explanation too frequently defaults to the paranormal after an incomplete
examination of alternative natural causes (Baker and Nickell 1992, 101–105;
Radford 2010, 11–32). They express resentment of the scientific community for
not seeing what they, as paranormalists, view as obvious—that their evidence is
convincing. While there are some explicitly nonparanormalist (skeptical)
investigation groups, they are few.
ARIGs overwhelmingly display neither understanding of nor adherence to
scientific norms. Another dramatic contrast to conventional scientific attitudes is
the number of ghost investigation groups that are Christian-based, openly
declaring their belief in angels, life after death, and demon infestations directly
alongside their descriptions for collecting empirical data.
Use of technology is pervasive for ARIGs. It is de rigueur to include a page on
the website dedicated to equipment used. High-end, expensive, or unique
instruments seem to be considered status symbols, with some groups advertising
the largest or newest array of devices.
Ghost hunter groups rely on their equipment to record spiritual evidence. Several
groups express the notion that new technology is the key to a breakthrough in
paranormal research. Yet at no site and in no ghost investigation reference book
did I encounter a coherent, referenced explanation for the various equipment
used and data gathered. ARIGs matter-of-factly state that the equipment records
environmental disturbances related to paranormal activity without considering
normal variance or calibration.
Reliance on equipment mimics the current television portrayal of paranormal
investigation. Television shows give us a simplified and optimistic representation
of science (Collins 1987). Science, viewed by laypersons, is about the symbols
(such as paraphernalia and certain personal characteristics of scientists) and end
products (Toumey 1996). Use of equipment suggests objectivity—others can see
the obtained numerical data from which the results are concluded.
Public Acceptance of “Sciencey” Things
Science has considered but provisionally rejected claims of ghosts, cryptids, and
alien spacecraft. Yet the public has a high interest in such ideas. To them,
seemingly paranormal phenomena are unknown and deserve serious attention.
When most respectable scientists eschew paranormal topics, self-styled experts
outside of science step in to provide support and legitimacy for public interest
(Westrum 1977). We can say with certainty that there are presently well over
1,000 of these groups active in the United States to serve these interests.
Specialized skills and high standards characterize scientific work. However, hardly
any ARIG lists formal scientific training as a desired qualification of its members.
ARIG members generally do what appear to be respectable, convincing, and
“sciencey” things. The public mostly relies on heuristics, looking for cues that
suggest a source of information is knowledgeable and sophisticated. Because
much of the public has little understanding of the rigor and practices of science,
it is easy for nonscientists to adopt a hollow likeness of science that
misrepresents it. The average observer would not have the background
knowledge to determine that ARIG portrayal of a “high-tech” paranormal
investigation is ineffectual and without a sound foundation in scientific principals.
ARIGs deliver sham inquiry—a process that gives the impression of scientific
inquiry but lacks substance and rigor.
Those who are anxious about the current state of science education, especially
informal science education, may have a justifiable concern about how “reality”
popular television portrays the scientific endeavor and who gain public credibility
as investigators or scientific researchers. ARIGs often promote their
paranormalist viewpoint as scientifically based, especially in community
presentations or lectures at educational facilities. While scientifically minded
observers can readily spot the anemic and shoddy scholarship of popular
paranormal investigation, the public, unaware of the fundamental errors ARIGs
make, can be persuaded by jargon and “sciencey” symbols.
1. Such as Galaxy Zoo or the Audubon bird count surveys.
2. Ghost Adventures Crew claims over 600 members (www.webcitation.org/
5y3t6VBdK). Neither TAPS nor GAC require any scientific training for affiliated
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Citation: Skeptical Inquirer Volume 36.2, March/April 2012