In the new film "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," the main character Hellboy saves the world from trolls, demons, and other strange netherworld creatures. The cigar-chompin', red-skinned devil-man doesn't do it just for fun; it's his job.
Hellboy is a special agent in the ultra-classified Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, a government agency that protects the world from supernatural and paranormal threats.
The idea of a super-secret government crack team of paranormal investigators is of course great film fodder, not only for "Hellboy," but also the "X-Files" and the "Men in Black" franchises as well.
While the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense is fiction, there actually is a real team that investigates paranormal phenomena. It is a non-profit educational organization based in Buffalo, NY, called the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.
Recently renamed the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), its goal is to encourage "the critical investigation of controversial or extraordinary claims from a responsible, scientific point of view." The organization was founded in 1976 by a group of philosophers and scientists including Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov.
In addition to promoting science literacy and critical thinking, investigators at CSI have researched hundreds of "unexplained" events and phenomena, including Bigfoot, crop circles, ghosts, UFOs, psychic powers, miracles, and so on—as well as non-paranormal topics such as alternative medicine, free energy claims, pseudoscience, and the psychology of belief. The research is published in the magazine Skeptical Inquirer.
In fact, CSI is the only organization in the world with a staff of paid paranormal investigators (full disclosure: I'm one of them). The goal is to neither prove nor disprove the existence of a particular phenomena, but instead to evaluate all the evidence carefully using scientific principles.
There are hundreds of amateur paranormal investigator groups across the country and around the world, but what sets CSI apart is not only its credibility (with a roster of Ph.D.s and Nobel laureates) but also its strict adherence to scientific methods. (Contrast this with the popular TV show "Ghost Hunters," for example, where the investigators use electromagnetic field detectors to "find" ghosts, though there's no evidence that ghosts give off electromagnetic fields!)
Agents (or, rather, investigators) for CSI don't have Hellboy's superpowers, the Men in Blacks' amnesiac Neuralizer gadgets, or even the Ghost Busters' spirit-snaring proton packs. Instead, they use science and critical thinking to investigate—and often solve—the mysteries.
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Benjamin Radford has investigated the paranormal for over a decade and is managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. He is co-author of "Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking" and "Lake Monster Mysteries." These and other books can be found on his website.