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From Weeping Icons to Crop Circles: Investigating with Gusto

Book Review

Terry Smiljanich

Volume 32.5, September / October 2008

Browsing through a bookstore, someone comes across a cover featuring an eerie illustration of a boy opening a door into the unknown—a volume about “adventures in paranormal investigation.” Inside are chapters on spirit writing, stigmata, crystal skulls, Satan, ghost towns, UFOs, lake monsters, and even Frankenstein. Drawn in by the discussion of stranger things than are dreamt of in his philosophy, he buys the book in the hopes of an evening of entertaining reading.

Entertainment he will get, as will all readers of Joe Nickell’s latest book, Adventures in Paranormal Investigation, taken largely from his “Investigative Files” columns from Skeptical Inquirer. At no extra charge, the reader will also be imparted with knowledge leading to the realization that when the hard light of reality shines on these mysterious phenomena, they tend to dissipate like the fog on the cover.

Readers of this magazine need no introduction to Joe Nickell, who has devoted much of his life to the critical examination of strange reports and folklore. Perhaps the title and cover, however, will attract a larger audience who will discover a witty and absorbing private eye who has attempted to walk the fine line between critical inquiry and mere “debunking” (which is, as he points out, an a priori assumption that paranormal claims are not real and need disproving). Nickell approaches all such claims with gusto and an open mind.

It must be hard to maintain that attitude. Crop circles, ghostly hitchhikers, and weeping icons (to name but a paltry few) surely have gone beyond the need for serious examination into the realm of the merely kooky. Don’t we have more urgent mysteries that need answering? Aren’t these smaller and more ridiculous claims what Daniel Loxton, in a recent Skeptical Briefs article, called “unsinkable rubber ducks”?

Yes to both questions. But we can all be thankful that someone like Nickell is still out there plugging away at the myriad paranormal claims, some silly and some downright absurd, that saturate our human cultures. Given their ubiquity and the harm that can come from a habit of uncritical thinking, “somebody has to do it,” as Loxton said.

Nickell points out that his main challenge is in deciding which claims to investigate, especially those originating with “one puzzled person” or perhaps an “attention-seeking hoaxer.” A good guide should be the popularity of the purported phenomenon. Sure, Peter Popoff’s seeming gift for clairvoyance was exposed as fake years ago, but his act (via a receiver hidden in his ear) fleeced people out of millions of dollars and deserved the special attention that James Randi’s exposure gave it. And now that he’s back, Popoff is indeed deserving of even more than this Nickell’s worth of scrutiny.

Besides, it’s such fun! We armchair skeptics can sit back and watch a master at work. Some may look upon Nickell as a professional “wet blanket” telling people that their cool sightings or weird experiences were likely more human than supernatural. But who can resist lively accounts of examining an “alien” hand, a haunted gas chamber, ships of the dead, or fortune-telling birds?

Nickell is unfailingly thorough in his approach to investigations. Looking into the healing properties of a spa? The reader gets a short history of health spas, from ancient Greece to Aztec culture and on to medieval practices in a resort named Spa in Belgium. Interested in haunted castles? How about a history of Burg Frankenstein or Blarney Castle? And where else will you get a discussion of the possibility that the word “baloney” derives from “blarney” and the difference between the two? Quoting Fulton J. Sheen, Nickell explains that “baloney is flattery so thick it cannot be true, and blarney is flattery so thin we like it.”

The author turns briefly to personal issues as well. He discusses the joy of learning that he was the father of a previously unknown daughter and is curious about the “intuition” that had led her to first question her parentage while in her thirties. He gathers information about her upbringing and discovers several clues that came her way that could have led her to half suspect that her father was not who she had been told all along. Intuition is a powerful feeling that can be based on many such subtle hints “assembled unconsciously,” and when it turns out to be right, intuition can seem almost paranormal. As Nickell rightly cautions, it is not a consistently reliable indicator of the truth. It did, however, lead him to a new daughter and two grandsons.

There are, of course, serious issues mixed in with the fun. While some benign fortune-tellers may merely sell harmless optimism (“You will come into some money”), hucksters who “talk to the dead” generally prey upon the grief of others merely to line their own pockets. Psychic detectives cater to the credulous and waste the time of legitimate law enforcement. One shot at Randi’s million-dollar challenge would expose them all, so they wisely avoid skeptics. And a special place in the inner circle of shame and approbation must be reserved for psychic healers who exploit fear, detract from sound medical attention, and provide cruelly false hope.

For all of these reasons, someone like Joe Nickell is priceless. If that person who was attracted to the mysterious cover and tantalizing title discovers that testimonials and breathless eyewitness accounts are unreliable and that it can actually be more fun to exercise one’s critical-thinking faculties than to indulge in mere fantasy, then the reader will see that the door on the cover indeed opens into the sunlight.

Terry Smiljanich

Terry Smiljanich has been chairman of the Tampa Bay Skeptics for over fifteen years and is a trial attorney in Tampa, Florida.