by Bob Ladendorf
With some 80 skeptics and interested individuals filling the partitioned room at the Ramada Plaza Hotel near Chicago's O'Hare airport, Tom Flynn, director of the Center for Inquiry-International in Amherst, New York, set the tone for two-day workshop by decrying the "paranormal hucksterism" and "cultural contagion" prevalent today, particularly in UFO followings such as the "Heaven's Gate" sect's suicide.
Sponsored by the Center for Inquiry, the workshop, "Secrets of the Supernatural," in mid-May featured extensive sessions by Joe Nickell, author and Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP); a media panel headed by WGN radio personality Milt Rosenberg; a talk by Andrew Skolnick, news editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association; and a brief lecture by Walter McCrone, who performed the lab work on the Shroud of Turin proving that the "blood" on it was actually tempera paint made up of red ocher and vermilion.
The workshop touched on the surreal at times when members of the Baptist women's organization meeting on the other side of the partition started singing and chanting occasionally. At one point, the singing was so loud that Skolnick fought back by shouting out his slide show talk so that they could hear him!
Throughout the workshop, participants were shown dozens of slides illustrating the investigations conducted and discussed by Nickell, who wrestled with an allergy. He began his talk with his "cut" rope trick that he had recently performed on Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect" show, putting everybody at ease as they sipped coffee.
Nickell mentioned a current investigation of a haunted lodge, then returned to his first major investigation of the MacKenzie House in Toronto. He solved the mysterious sounds heard in it by pointing out that a publishing firm only a few feet away from the house had a creaky staircase that could be heard in the MacKenzie House. One theme that Nickell hit on was that of fantasy-prone individuals, who have been found to more readily believe in paranormal and pseudoscientific matters than those who are much less so.
Following his comments on photo fakery, Nickell discussed the classic "Two Will Wests" case of mistaken identity (actually they were probably identical twins) in 1903, which helped to spur the use of fingerprinting. In the midst of his presentation, the Baptist women began chanting "Praise the Lord!" followed by singing, clapping and stomping ("If you want to [unintelligible] , clap your hands, clap your hands!")
After the West case, he talked about spontaneous human combustion, effectively stating alternative explanations for it involving the melting of body fat triggered by smoking and alcohol, as well as one that probably started after the woman knocked herself out on an oven door. His detailed analyses of the circumstances surrounded the burnings were convincing. A brief review of the Peruvian Nazca lines and his involvement in physically making lines there with string again provided rational alternatives to supernatural explanations.
Lunch followed, along with a fund-raising appeal that netted more than $15,000 for the Center's activities by the end of the workshop.
On Sunday, Nickell continued with a description of his "Weeping Icon Kit," consisting of items such as capillary tubes and lab paper (nearby Schiller Park featured a house with a window supposedly showing the Virgin Mary just a few days before the workshop); discussion of the famous Polaroid "ghost" photos that were hoaxes; and an explanation for the "crystal tears," which Nickell duplicated by putting Herkimer diamonds under his eyelid (see his article on that in the May-June issue of the Skeptical Inquirer).
On the day before, Nickell, Flynn, Skolnick and Rosenberg formed a panel to discuss the responsibility of the media. The panel members each talked at length on different topics, such as the deceptive photo from a Los Angeles newspaper indicating in a caption that gang members shown with guns were frightening the community when, in reality, they were turning in their guns for money!
In his talk on mystical medical claims, Skolnick examined the circumstances surrounding his encounter with Wayne Jonas of the controversial federal Office of Alternative Medicine when he was told to sit down after asking a probing question at a press conference. Skolnick also reviewed a number of cases of medical fraud.
Perhaps Milt Rosenberg's wry advice in answer to the last question asked of the media panelists Saturday summarized the aim of the workshop: "Go thou and commit more skepticism!"