by Bob Ladendorf
Joe Nickell is the nuts and bolts investigator, the one who tests claims of the paranormal and pseudoscience in the real world. He was in St. Louis Oct. 15 to give a presentation co-sponsored by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) with the St. Louis Gateway Skeptics group. REALL Chairman David Bloomberg, board member Jim Rosenthal, Peter Chatterton and I drove down to St. Louis for the meeting, although we were late because of delays from an accident and slow service at a restaurant.
More than 50 attended the meeting at the University City public library and heard Joe discuss and illustrate with slides numerous topics, from the Shroud of Turin to ghost investigations. Sporting a red tie against a dark blue shirt and a sport jacket, Joe, a senior research fellow with CSICOP and a columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer, was in St. Louis as part of the Center for Inquiry-Midwest Speaker Series. "Investigating the Shroud of Turin ... and other Strange Mysteries" was the title of his talk.
During the question-and-answer period, following a devastating summary of the evidence against the shroud, Joe blamed the shroud believers for "mystery mongering." That conclusion reinforced his earlier criticism that those promoting the shroud as the one with Jesus Christs image are ignoring the facts. Their so-called "shroud science" actually starts with the answer and makes the evidence fit. But Joe pointed out that the historical, microbiological, and carbon-dating evidence all point to the fact that the shroud is a painting produced as a hoax in the Middle Ages by an artist.
In his two-hour talk, Joe covered many other claims and convincingly pointed out that thorough investigative work often produces simple explanations for what were asserted as being proof of paranormal or pseudoscientific ideas. In brief:
"Sleep paralysis" is an explanation for some "hauntings." Joe added that assertions that a place is haunted constitutes a "confirmation of a prior held belief." As he went on to say, "There are no haunted houses, only haunted people."
Thumbprint-size "ghost" images apparently appearing on a "blank" cloth during a seance where fees were charged in Kentucky were duplicated by Joe using solvents. The evidence was so good that Joe was able to convince authorities that this constituted "theft by deception."
People who burned up allegedly through "spontaneous human combustion" actually were incinerated because of various combinations of intoxication, flammable clothing, matches, lit cigarettes and burning fat, the latter which continued the destruction of the body through the "wick effect."
A "weeping" statue was found to have "tears" made up of 80 percent vegetable oil and 20 percent chicken fat. Unfortunately, other "weeping" statutes or icons often are prevented from being tested scientifically by Joe and other investigators.
A comatose girl supposedly has magical healing powers for true believers. Unfortunately, Joe said, she isnt able to heal herself.
The Roswell, New Mexico, crashed alien saucer was just a failed spy balloon.
These, and a few other topics, were well illustrated with slides in an effective demonstration that detective work can uncover the hoaxes and simple misunderstandings. He went on to say that police detectives are better investigators of matters like these than scientists because detectives are naturally skeptical of stories told by people about crimes or occurrences and know how the pursue evidence in a lot of areas. Scientists, on the other hand, often have a narrow area of interest or expertise and may be deceived easier.
Finally, when asked who Joe and skeptics would like to convince about these matters, he replied that he probably cant change the minds of the true believers but that those in the middle group between believers and skeptics are the ones he hopes to reach. That is a realistic response from one of the best investigators out there.