Ask people who routinely conduct paranormal investigations what the most terrifying part of an investigation is and there is a huge chance that the person you ask will begin to shake uncontrollably and mumble almost incorherently that, without question, the most terrifying part is . . . writing up the investigative report.
I understand the horror. It reminds me of having to write book reports in school, especially reports about boring books that never quite got fully read. I had to make up a lot of fancy words that sounded really intelligent. These reports weren’t fun.
Let’s get it straight: investigative reports aren’t book reports. A well-organized investigative report isn’t a bad thing. It’s like a map that it lets us know in clear unambiguous terms what went on during an investigation. It tells us so exactly that, if we wanted to do so, we could either exactly reproduce the investigation, or introduce something new that might make all the difference. An investigative report also lets us know that, if we try to reproduce a particular investigation, this effort, for one reason or another, might be a complete waste of time. Whatever the reasons, a good report is not only worth the effort, it’s a valuable contribution to the community of paranormal investigators. There’s no reason we investigators can’t help each other.
Although my recipe for a report follows basic scientific method, there’s no need to be nervous about a report that follows scientific method. That’s because, unlike paranormal phenomena, a good report follows an easy 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 recipe. All we have to do is follow this recipe. Sure, an argument might be that scientific method extinguishes sensitivity for the paranormal, but following scientific method doesn’t mean we must be as closed as traditional scientists. Following scientific method only means we learn to organize information, no matter how unconventional this information might be. Organization is vital.
To cover each of the eight steps in an organized fashion, it’s useful to prepare one or two sheets of paper for each step. That way, it’s possible to scribble quick notes that will be useful in the final report. These sheets are useful for significant insights or ideas that arise during the course of investigation. The sheets order our thoughts.
So, now that I’ve spoken about the importance of organization, what are the eight steps? What does each step involve? How we one use the steps for paranormal investigation?
I’ll go through each of the eight steps:
I. Abstract. Call it a blurb that briefly tells what the investigation was about. It tells the reader what to expect. The abstract is short (ca. 250 words at most) and concise.
II. General statement of the Research Problem. If the abstract has piqued our interest, the general statement goes into greater detail. We find out where we conducted the investigation. Why did we conduct this investigation? The reader also learns who exactly participated in the investigation and what their qualifications are. What jobs did they do? What did these investigators wish to accomplish? Strong, clear statements are desirable.
III. Background of the problem. There are two steps here. First, the reader learns about history that makes an investigation relevent. In short, what happened here? How often has phenomena been reported? Second, we look into the history of other investigations that were conducted at the site. Most critical questions are: 1) Has there been a formal study? 2) How recent was the study? 3) Who did it? 4) What did they do? 5) Is there existent literature about prior studies? If not, who is available for interview?
IV. Design of Study. This section tells how we intend to conduct the investigation. What tools will we use? How long will we stay on the site? Who will be doing what? How will we record observations? This part describes the investigation plan.
V. Results from Data collection. Now reality sets in. The investigation has been done. This section tells us how we really collected data. This part is nitty-gritty. It doesn’t say anything about cool stuff that might have happened (that comes later). The focus is straightforward. What tools worked; what tools didn’t work? When did we collect data? How long? Were there unforseen problems?
VI. Analysis of Data. Numbers. Graphs. The down-and-dirty information goes on. We focus on numerical information. What are the numbers? If it is possible to create a visual graph of events, do so. The idea is to see if there are any unexpected readings. Sometimes, a graph will reveal oddities that were missed during observation. It may also show there was nothing that could be recorded at the site. Lack of significant numbers doesn’t necessarily mean there was nothing. It means our measurements showed nothing.
VII. Discussion. Discussion is the fun part. Why? It’s subjective. We can interpret what we experienced. We get to talk about everything we couldn’t measure with mechanical tools. We can talk about feelings. We can talk about the input of psychics (if psychics were available). All in all, we make suggestions about what happened, including the suggestion that mechanical (or other) tools were inadequate. We tell what we think the investigation proved. We examine whether our results support earlier reports. On the basis of our results, we can say what we think the investigation was all about.
VIII. Conclusion. Conclusion is the wrap-up. Was the investigation successful? How do we feel the investigation contributed to research? What were strong points and what were weak points? If the investigation were done again, what should be added? Taken away? How would it be possible to improve future investigations of the same site?
I know this all still sounds like hard science, but it’s difficult to deny that this format is a great way to structure an investigation. It’s a great way to tell others about an investigation. My guess is that this format also provides the best chance for publication in a reputable journal. Above all, the sort of investigation helps us to gain the image of being more than “flaky science.” Although we are somewhat off the mainstream, we are still serious investigators who deserve to be acknowledged!