Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Real-Life X-Files

Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal
Joe Nickell 2001
326 pages

Joe Nickell is a frequent guest of Point of Inquiry, a podcast I listen to weekly. Past readings have come from Point of Inquiry, and this is another. Nickell examines paranormal claims. He does not set out to "debunk" them, only to examine the cause of the reports. He claims to be open to admitting to supernatural activity in the advent that no natural explanation can be found. This book contains forty-seven episodes in his experience as a paranormal investigator, each meriting its own chapter. Some of these paranormal events are familiar to almost everyone: Roswell, crop circles, the Shroud of Turin*, and the Oak Island "money pit". Other chapters do not deal with particular episodes, but a type of phenomenon: snake oil, for instance, or haunted inns. According to the inside flap, Nickell was a "former private investigator and forensics writer". Judging by his numerous interviews, he's also quite civil with people he disagrees with. He cites numerous other books and provides pictures (many taken by him) when necessary. He does a good job (in my estimation) of explaining why he believes what may be the case, and I didn't observe any leaps in logic. There is one of his explanations I can't accept, though. In chapter 28, "Ghostly Photos", Nickell states his believe that the "ghostly" images are simply caused by the camera's "hand strap getting in front of the lens". Their sheen, he says, "enables them to reflect brightly the flash from the camera's self-contained flash unit". He shows photographs of his own and observes that the photos look very similar. The problem with that explanation, at least regarding one of the "ghostly" photographs that he is trying to explain, is that I can see through the ghostly part. If it were a reflection of the band -- the solid band -- how can I see through it? I believe there may be another explanation behind that particular photo. You can see the "ghostly" photos here. The two in the book are figures 1 and 2, while some of Nickell's work is below. What do you think?

The book is generally well-written and interesting. It's always interesting for me to see how the human mind can play tricks on us, but in some cases people don't care. In "Adventure of the Weeping Icon", one woman said to Nickell "I don't care if there's a pipe and a hose behind that picture. I don't care if the Virgin Mary jumps right out of the painting. You either believe in miracles or you don't. I believe." The ability to believe in a obvious lie is unfortunate. While that woman's belief was relatively harmless, what of those who spend their money in schemes or trust obviously unfit politicians like Stalin?

*I didn't comment on this at the time, but Thomas Cahill seems to place faith in the Shroud of Turin in his Desire of the Everlasting Hills. Cahill's such an interesting author -- skeptical one moment, credulous the next.

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