Benjamin Radford (born October 2, 1970) is an American writer and skeptic. He has authored, coauthored or contributed to twenty books and written over a thousand articles and columns on a wide variety of topics including urban legends, unexplained mysteries, the paranormal, critical thinking, mass hysteria, and media literacy.
His most recent book, Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment, was published in the summer of 2014 and is a scientific investigation of famous legends and folklore in the state of New Mexico. Radford has appeared on Good Morning America, CNN, The History Channel, the National Geographic Channel, the Learning Channel, CBC, BBC, ABC News, The New York Times, and many other outlets.
Radford characterizes himself as one of the world’s few science-based paranormal investigators, and has done first-hand research into psychics, ghosts, exorcisms, miracles, Bigfoot, stigmata, lake monsters, UFO sightings, reincarnation, crop circles, and other topics. “I’m open-minded. I never said I don’t believe ghosts exist. But I can say I’ve looked at the research that’s been done, and I’ve done personal investigations. In each particular case there either is or isn’t good, compelling evidence, and so far I haven’t seen it.”
He regularly speaks at universities and conferences across the country about his research. Radford’s books and investigations have been incorporated into several college and university courses on critical thinking, including at Western Washington University and the University of New Mexico.
Radford is also a contributor to the Snopes.com urban legends web site, where he has researched and written articles debunking fakelore and a variety of popular myths including The Amityville Horror and the claim that humans only use 10% of their brains.
Ben became interested in “the mysterious and the unexplained” as a child from reading books about, “monsters and dragons, the Bermuda Triangle, psychics in Russia that could move automobiles with their mind”, etc. He also became interested through television shows such as That’s Incredible and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. He grew disenchanted with the lack of scientific rigor in the books and television shows because there seemed to be little or no investigation or proper references.
“Like many youngsters, much of my childhood was eaten up by comic books and television. My skepticism was first tweaked by Superman… I was most interested in Superman’s ability to fly. Just how did he do that? How did he actually make himself fly? Did the act of putting his fist forward make him fly? Or did he just think about it and lift off the ground? Did he have some localized mental control over gravity? I wanted to know; I wanted to understand.”
His favorite comic hero, The Amazing Spider-Man, inspired Ben to ask questions about the mechanisms of how the super-hero’s powers worked. “My first question was how he stuck to walls. Okay, I could buy that he could jump onto a wall and stick to it. But how did he actually make that happen? Did he stick to everything, or just walls? Why didn’t paper, pencils, dollar bills, and everything else stick to his hands, too?”
As a teenager Ben was fascinated by books about the strange and mysterious. In addition to purchasing used books like those featuring Doc Savage, Tom Swift and Encyclopedia Brown with his allowance, he’d buy “True Mystery” collections with titles like “Stranger Than Science”. Written by authors such as Frank Edwards, these promised “fully-documented stories taken from life that modern science is powerless to explain!”. Noticing that the catchphrase “science cannot explain” was quite popular, he also noticed that these books failed to have any sources, references or documentation to support the wild claims made therein.
“I continued to gather more and more of these books, and between the library and the bookstore, for a few summers I was a voracious reader. I had books on fortune telling, astrology, and the Bermuda Triangle. I had books on demonic possession, exorcism, palmistry, and dowsing. I had books on mysterious creatures, psychic powers, ghosts, flying saucers, and monsters in dark corners of the world. I assumed that these stories were all (or mostly) true—the authors seemed authoritative. They were learned men and women who had studied mysterious and unusual events, written other similar books, and were apparently well qualified to report the facts of these amazing stories. But I did notice that there seemed to be precious little actual investigation; instead, most of the accounts seemed merely copied from other, older sources. There were plenty of theories and bald assertions, but no real scientific investigation, no one doing a reality check on the stories. And there was a disconnect between what I was reading and my experiences.”
Ben’s first encounter with formal Skepticism came as a result of a fruitless search for beer in an “dry” county in Utah. Winning a regional essay contest while at the University of New Mexico, he was flown to present his paper at a college town in Utah. He and his colleagues came across a tiny used bookstore where Ben acquired an old issue of Skeptical Inquirer Magazine featuring an article on the prophesies of Nostradamus penned by none other than James Randi. Ben relates that this was the first article he’d read criticizing Nostradamus and offered, “skeptical, logical, and reasonable explanations for the prophecies apparent accuracy.”
Education and career
Radford holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology (graduating magna cum laude) with a minor in professional writing from the University of New Mexico where he was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society in 1993, and holds a master’s degree in Education from the University at Buffalo, New York where his focus was on Science and the Public, and his masters thesis research was conducted on identifying misinformation about eating disorders in the media: “Misinformation in Eating Disorder Communications: Implications for Science Communication Policy.”.
He was managing editor of the science magazine Skeptical Inquirer from 1997 until early 2011, when he was promoted to deputy editor. He is also a regular columnist at the magazine.
Until its suspended publication in 2009, he was editor-in-chief of the Spanish-language magazine Pensar, published in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Radford is also a regular columnist for Discovery News, LiveScience.com, and the Skeptical Briefs newsletter.
As well, Ben is a co-founder and former co-host of MonsterTalk, a podcast, which critically examines the science and folklore behind cryptozoological (and legendary) creatures such as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and werewolves. MonsterTalk won the 2012 Parsec podcast award for the “Best Fact Behind the Fiction” category.
He is a Research Fellow with the non-profit educational organization Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and presented at the American Folklore Society’s 2011 annual conference on Folklore of the Chupacabra.
Working as a Scientific Paranormal Investigator
Described as a “professional skeptic”, Ben works at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry investigating all manner of unusual claims and events. His work includes investigation, consumer advocacy, reporting, journalism, science literacy education, public speaking, and being a media watchdog.
Ben was consulted by producer from the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” to verify the correct answer to a question along the lines of: Which of the following geometric shapes is claimed to possess unusual powers? A square, rectangle, pyramid, or cylinder?. He has also been consulted for an episode of the TV show CSI regarding a Halloween episode about a haunted house.
“I am not paid to doubt things; I am paid to promote science and investigate unusual claims. Our approach is empirical, evidence- and science-based. Science has proven itself incredibly successful in explaining and finding out about the world. If we wish to know why a certain disease strikes one person and not another, we turn to medicine instead of a witch doctor. If we wish to know how to build a bridge that can span a river, we turn to physics instead of psychics. Paranormal or “unexplained” topics are testable by science: either a psychic’s prediction comes true or it doesn’t; either ghosts exist in the real world or they don’t. My job is not to doubt, nor debunk; it is to investigate. I have no vested interest in proving or disproving any unexplained phenomena; I get paid the same either way. But the cardinal rule is that an investigator must eliminate all the natural explanations before accepting supernatural ones, and must use sound science.”
Radford has conducted hundreds of investigations into “unexplained” phenomena. These are some of his best-known cases:
Pokémon panic (1997)
In 2001, Radford investigated the mysterious 1997 incident in which thousands of Japanese children seemingly suffered seizures while watching “Denno Senshi Porygon”, an episode of the Pokémon anime. Though many doctors advanced theories including photosensitive epilepsy, Radford proffered evidence that the incident was rooted in mass hysteria. The resulting article, co-authored by Robert Bartholomew, was published in the February 2001 Southern Medical Journal.
“We studied a reported illness outbreak occurring on December 16, 1997, involving more than 12,000 Japanese children who had various signs and symptoms of illness after watching an episode of a popular animated cartoon, Pokémon. While photosensitive epilepsy was diagnosed in a minuscule fraction of those affected, this explanation cannot account for the breadth and pattern of the events. The characteristic features of the episode are consistent with the diagnosis of epidemic hysteria, triggered by sudden anxiety after dramatic mass media reports describing a relatively small number of genuine photosensitive-epilepsy seizures. The importance of the mass media in precipitating outbreaks of mass psychogenic illness is discussed.”
Santa Fe courthouse ghost (2007)
In 2007, Radford solved the mystery of the “Santa Fe Courthouse Ghost”, a mysterious, glowing, white blob that was captured on videotape June 15, by a security camera at a courthouse in Santa Fe, New Mexico. While the court personnel who first saw the baffling image didn’t know what to make of it, others soon offered their own explanations, and a ghost was among the most popular.
Radford did several days of on-site field investigations at the courthouse, and after several experiments duplicated the “ghost” effect by placing insects on the video camera that recorded the original event.
The “ghost video” became a nationwide hit and has been viewed over 85,000 times on the YouTube web site. What started as a local curiosity soon spread internationally, as CBS News, ABC News, and newspapers across the country from The Boston Globe to the San Francisco Chronicle carried the story of the “courthouse ghost.”
The Los Angeles UFO / mystery missile (2010)
In November 2010, a UFO was sighted and recorded in the sky over Los Angeles by a news helicopter cameraman. The object created a rocket-like contrail rising like a pillar in the sunset approximately 35 miles off the Californian coast. The U.S. military claimed no knowledge of any military missiles or commercial satellite launches, fueling a mystery that made international news. Theories ranged from alien spacecraft to Chinese missiles to top-secret U.S. military experiments.
Many experts appeared in the news media suggested that the UFO was probably a missile of some sort, including retired United States Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas G. McInerney and Michio Kaku, a physics professor at City University of New York (who later reversed his opinion).
In a column for Discovery News, Radford was one of the first journalists to critically analyze the video and correctly identify the UFO or “mystery missile” as an airplane contrail.
The White Witch of Rose Hall (2007)
Rose Hall is a mansion near Montego Bay in Jamaica built in the 1770s, and has a reputation as “one of the most haunted places in the Western Hemisphere,”. It is the home to the alleged White Witch of Rose Hall.
Rose Hall is said to be haunted by a woman named Annie Palmer, who allegedly killed three husbands, knew black magic, and was known for her cruelty and sadism. Legend says she was killed in 1831 by a slave, and buried in a tomb not far from the mansion. Psychics and tourists at the site claim to find evidence of Annie Palmer’s spirit in the form of “orbs” and “ghost photographs.”
In 2007, Radford went to the site and investigated the story behind the alleged White Witch. Through careful investigation and analysis, he showed that the stories about Annie Palmer’s ghost could not be true, because she was a fictional character.
In Fortean Times magazine and his book Scientific Paranormal Investigation, Radford published his re-creations of the “ghost photos” taken at Rose Hall, showing that they were instead camera artifacts and reflected flashes, not ghosts.
Kansas City gym ghost video (2008)
Radford investigated and solved the mystery of an alleged “ghost video” taken at Anytime Fitness, an all-night fitness club in Overland Park, Kansas in 2008. Surveillance cameras caught the glowing, fuzzy light in a workout area, wandering over the weight benches and fitness machines. The video was circulated on YouTube, generating more than 100,000 hits.
Radford concluded the actual culprit to be merely an insect on the camera lens. His conclusions were based on the several facts: 1) the image only showed up on one of several cameras covering the area, 2) the fuzzy and out-of-focus image indicated that the object was closer rather than farther to the security camera which is designed to focus at longer distances, 3) the image appears to reflecting rather than emitting light, and 4) the image appeared to go over objects in the room rather than going around them.
The “Champ” photo (1995)
After investigating claims of a monster in Lake Champlain that has been nicknamed “Champ”, Radford, along with Joe Nickell concluded that the object in the famous photo was almost certainly a floating log or tree-trunk.
The photo, taken by Sandra Mansi in 1977, sparked investigations and national interest into the creature allegedly living in Lake Champlain. John Kirk, in his book In the Domain of the Lake Monsters, writes that “The monster of Lake Champlain… has the distinction of being the only lake monster of whom there is a reasonably clear photograph. It… is extremely good evidence of an unidentified lake-dwelling animal”. Joe Zarzynski, author of Champ: Beyond the Legend (1984), calls the photo “the best single piece of evidence on Champ.”
After examining the original, rarely seen photograph, Radford and Nickell proved via experiment that all of the previous estimates of the object’s size were dramatically overstated, concluding that the object was only about 2 m (6.6 ft) long rather than the original estimates of 4.5–20 m (15–66 ft). As well, the object “sank” rather than dove according to the account, and the position of the “head” relative to the rest of the “hump” in the photo didn’t allow for enough room for a “neck”. Despite having a “head” in the photo, the object didn’t have any discernible sense organs or a mouth. Also according to Mansi’s account, when being photographed the object did not react to the noise of children playing in the water close by or to shouts. In addition, by Mansi’s own account, the surface looked, “like bark”.
The results of the Champ and Mansi photo investigation were published in the book Lake Monster Mysteries, as well as in Skeptical Inquirer magazine and Fortean Times magazine. Radford and Nickell re-enacted their experiments and investigation for the Discovery Channel in 1995.
Radford spent five years investigating the mysterious monster el chupacabra, and came to the conclusion that the monster sightings were inspired by the 1995 film Species and were aided and abetted by faulty eyewitness accounts, lack of forensic knowledge, and mass hysteria. His account of the investigation is detailed in his 2011 book Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore. The investigation included eyewitness interviews, forensic and folkloric research, and “a field expedition to the jungles of Nicaragua” in search of the legendary monster.
Similar media-inspired monster sightings have been detailed for the Loch Ness Monster (inspired by scenes depicting a Plesiosaur-like monster in the 1933 King Kong movie) and of the fictional bogey-man Slender Man reported on the talk-radio show Coast to Coast.
Tracking the Chupacabra was a Finalist for two books awards including Book of the Year. According to Outside Magazine, Radford came to the conclusion that the chupacabra “was nothing but a cinematic fever dream.”
Dyatlov Pass Deaths (2014)
The 2014 Discovery Channel special Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives explored claims that the Dyatlov group was killed by an enraged Russian yeti. Radford wrote an in-depth review of the show for the Doubtful News website on June 1. He notes that “Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives begins with the premise that the injuries sustained by the skiers were so grave and extraordinary that could only have been inflicted by an inhumanly strong creature.” The show makes much of Ludmila Dubinina’s missing tongue and claims that something must have “ripped it out” of her. However, Radford states, “As it happens a tongue-eating Yeti—even assuming it exists—is by far the least likely explanation. The ‘missing parts’ aspect of this case is a familiar one to skeptics, and has been invoked in countless other ‘unsolved’ mysteries including the chupacabra, cattle mutilations, Satanic animal sacrifices, and aliens. Typically a mystery is mongered by those unfamiliar with—or who intentionally ignore—ordinary predation and decomposition. Lots of animals both big and small scavenge on the soft parts of dead bodies. Another possibility is that Dubinina was caught in an avalanche and the force of the snow and rocks caused her tongue to be bitten off as she yelled and tumbled down the ravine where she was eventually found.”
Radford states that “Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives and Mike Libecki would have us believe that the nine skiers had an encounter with a Yeti, which they not only saw and photographed but stalked them. And yet none of the skiers mentioned anything else about the Yeti, or their shock at having photographed the creature. In fact, if Libecki it to be believed, their encounter with a Yeti was such an insignificant event that they didn’t mention it at all in their journals, and continued their journey uninterrupted.” At the end of the show, after all the manufactured drama and running around, Libecki admits that he found no real evidence that the Yeti exists, much less that it was responsible for the deaths of nine Russian skiers in 1959.
Radford’s theory “is that the group woke up in a panic on that fateful night and cut their way out the tent either because an avalanche had covered the entrance to their tent or because they were scared that an avalanche was imminent and that was the fastest way for all of them to get out quickly (better to have a potentially repairable slit in a tent than risk being buried alive in it under tons of snow). They were poorly clothed because they had been sleeping, and ran to the safety of the nearby woods where trees would help slow oncoming snow. In the darkness of night they got separated into two or three groups; one group made a fire (hence the burned hands) while the others tried to return to the tent to recover their clothing, since the danger had apparently passed. But it was too cold, and they all froze to death before they could locate their tent in the darkness. At some point some of the clothes may have been recovered or swapped from the dead, but at any rate the group of four whose bodies were most severely damaged were caught in an avalanche and buried under 13 feet of snow (more than enough to account for the ‘compelling natural force’ the medical examiner described). Dubinina’s tongue was likely removed by scavengers and ordinary predation. We will of course never know what, exactly, happened, but… the cause of the deaths of the skiers is not mysterious or ‘unknown’ as is often suggested. It is in fact clear from the medical examiner’s report: hypothermia, or freezing to death. There’s really no reason to question the conclusion of the investigators who had first-hand access to all the available evidence at the time. Exactly what caused them to them flee their tent can be speculated upon endlessly, but there’s no reason to assume that anything unknown or mysterious caused it. In the absence of evidence one wild theory is as good as the next.”
Bartholomew, Robert; Radford, Benjamin (2003), Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, p. 229, ISBN 978-1591020486
Radford, Benjamin (2003), Media Mythmakers : How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, p. 324, ISBN 978-1591020721
Radford, Benjamin; Nickell, Joe (2006), Lake Monster Mysteries : Investigating the World’s Most Elusive Creatures, Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, p. 208, ISBN 978-0813123943
Radford, Benjamin (2010), Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries, Rhombus Publishing Company, p. 312, ISBN 978-0936455112
Radford, Benjamin (2011), Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore, University of New Mexico Press, p. 288, ISBN 978-0826350152
Bartholomew, Robert; Radford, Benjamin (2011), The Martians Have Landed! A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes, McFarland and Co., p. 254, ISBN 978-0786464982
Radford, Benjamin (2014), Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment, University of New Mexico Press, p. 304, ISBN 978-0826354501