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No Doubt About It--The Skeptics Put On Good Show

Times Staff Writer

It’s a virtuoso performance. Joe Nickell, tweedy, professorial, supremely self-confident, in front of a Caltech lecture audience, is disparaging the renowned Shroud of Turin as a fraud.

He quotes from the Gospels. He throws out scientific citations. He theorizes with crushing conviction. He marches through a provocative slide show, ending with a shot of the shroud’s now-famous bearded visage.

The purported face of Jesus winks.

Nickell is implacable. Like a musketeer in brown herringbone, the University of Kentucky professor slices and slashes, seeming to demolish the controversial claim that the shroud is the authentic burial cloth of Jesus, reducing it to so much shredded wastepaper.

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‘Utterly Devastating’

Various teams of researchers have studied the shroud, a number of inquiries are still in progress and the debate over its authenticity continues to raise doubts in the minds of many researchers--but not in the mind of Nickell.

“The evidence against it is so utterly devastating,” he concludes, “it’s worse than the Hitler diaries.”

The audience of about 300, gathered on a Sunday afternoon for the monthly meeting of the Southern California Skeptics, applauds lustily. This is what they’re here for: to witness for the umpteenth time a malaise of muddle-headedness dispersed by the cool wind of logic, giving a hard-edged clarity to the afternoon.

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“This guy tells a good story,” says one skeptic, a tense, grizzled man, with his sneakers laced upside down.

For restless intellects, the skeptics are the hottest show in town these days. If you want a seat at the organization’s regular meeting on the second Sunday of every month, you’d better arrive early at the Baxter Lecture Hall, where the lectures can target anything from Erich von Daniken’s far-out theories about astronauts having landed on earth in prehistoric times to the latest fad in the human potential movement, from seances to the Bermuda Triangle, from UFOs to ESP.

“It’s a breath of fresh air,” said one ebullient member, a former high school science teacher who declined to give her name. “A great percentage of the population just believes a lot of unsubstantiated garbage. Here, they don’t accept nonsense.”

Two years ago, the organization even held a fire-walking demonstration, setting up a bed of burning coals on the Caltech sports field and inviting members to walk through barefoot. The idea was to debunk self-help groups claiming to teach people how to gain control of their mental and physical health, with fire-walking as the litmus test of their system’s validity.

Anybody can do it, said the lecturer, because the touch of a foot cools the embers faster than the skin heats up. Besides, he said, fire-walkers often walk on wet grass, giving bare feet an insulating layer of moisture.

Southern California Skeptics has 1,800 members, cerebral, inquiring people who do not like to be told how to think, according to the group’s leaders.

Why Challenge Authority?

Al Seckel, who organized the group in January, 1985, says that one of his favorite jokes sums up the contentious, challenging spirit of the organization. It goes like this:

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Intellectual 1: Challenge authority!

Intellectual 2: Why?

The members come from all walks of life, says Seckel, an intense graduate of Cornell in physics and math, who took leave from Caltech, where he was a candidate for doctoral degrees in both relativistic astrophysics and biochemistry, to start Southern California Skeptics.

“We’ve got cab drivers, housewives, magicians, Nobel laureates, you name it,” he said, though the former science teacher added

that the group “tends towards Caltechers.”

Among the members are Edwin Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory; Frances Crick and Roger W. Sperry, both Nobel laureates in medicine; William Jarvis, president of the National Council Against Health Fraud; and James Randi, a magician.

Subscription to LASER

For $25 a year ($15 for students and senior citizens), members get invitations to all of the group’s events and a subscription to the organization’s bimonthly magazine, LASER (Los Angeles Skeptics Evaluative Report), which exposes the latest fallacies, hoaxes, myths, intellectual fads and pseudo-scientific notions.

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Though there is rarely a careless, half-baked remark at a lecture, this is not an organization of “nerds and academics,” insisted Seckel.

“It’s a fun group,” he said. “From what I hear, it’s the social place, the pick-up joint. People have a blast.”

But many seem to be serious-minded people who have wrestled with some destructive irrationalities in their lives.

“I come from a background of fundamentalist Christianity, where people could claim to be saved or born again yet still talk about ‘niggers,’ ” said Timothy Rutt, an editor of accounting publications who was attending his first lecture. “People aren’t using their critical faculties nowadays. We have faith healers running for president, and strange claims are the order of the day.”

Belief in Superstition

Robert Kasold, a teacher of computer programming who has been going to Southern California Skeptics lectures since the beginning, said he worried about people believing in superstitions.

“I’m concerned, particularly about all the people in the L.A. area being taken advantage of,” he said. “I have a very dear friend who believes faithfully in astrology. She believes there are adverse days for doing things, and she has great faith in predicting personality matches based on the moment of birth.”

The point is not just to debunk, says the group’s chairman, Al Hibbs, who recently retired as the senior staff scientist in the Jet Propulsion Lab technology and space department.

“The real point is to show people how they can go about checking out things for themselves,” he said. “Ordinary people can check the validity of some very strange propositions.”

Seckel, 28, worries that Southern California Skeptics, which is loosely affiliated with the national Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, will be perceived as a bunch of negativists.

‘Look at Real Mysteries’

“Why not look at the real mysteries, the ones for which there’s at least some evidence?” he said, citing the black hole theory as an example. A black hole, scientists believe, is a star that has collapsed under its own gravitation and is so dense that not even light can escape from it. “Look at the . . . the idea that time slows down as you enter it, that a watch is going to move at a different rate for an outside observer than for someone in a black hole,” Seckel said. “Or how about the idea that you age infinitesimally more slowly on the first floor of a building than on the top floor?”

For many, the organization offers a counterbalance to an endemic “anti-science attitude,” Seckel said.

“A lot of people think science is about making atomic weapons or super computers,” he said. “People suffer from technophobia. They feel impotent. We’re trying to teach science in a way that’s understandable to the public.”

The organization’s primary purpose, however, is just to stimulate thought, Seckel said.

“People can do fire-walking,” he said. “But how can they do it? Things usually have an explanation. “I want to get people to start thinking about things themselves, as opposed to just telling them the solution,” he said. “You can’t lose weight by watching other people diet. You have to do it yourself.”

Emphasis on Education

Under Seckel’s guidance, the emphasis has been largely on education.

Recently, for example, Southern California Skeptics board member and Caltech physics professor Murray Gell-Mann got 72 fellow Nobel Prize winners to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to reject a Louisiana law calling for “balanced treatment” of evolution and creationism in public school science classes.

“Creation sciences,” the laureates said in a friend-of-the-court brief, “strips our citizens of the power to distinguish between the phenomena of nature and the supernatural articles of faith.”

The words could have served as part of the group’s statement of principles. It’s not that Southern California Skeptics, which has a standing offer of $10,000 for anyone who can prove the existence of the supernatural or the paranormal, wants to destroy people’s deeply held beliefs, Seckel insists. It’s that they want to disprove spurious scientific claims, said Seckel.

‘Can’t Attack Faith’

“You really can’t attack faith,” said Hibbs. “It’s when people say that there’s scientific evidence for their ideas that our antennae go off.”

In the debate over the Shroud of Turin, Nickell speculates that it’s a hoax, perpetrated by a 14th-Century artist. He says there’s even historical evidence for that, citing a report from a 14th-Century French bishop that referred to “the scandal and delusion” resulting from the public exhibition of the shroud and its use to extract money from pilgrims for souvenirs.

Nickell, a former stage magician who teaches technical writing, says the image of Christ is too “picture-like” to be authentic.

For example, the faint “trickles” of blood on the shroud, purportedly from where Christ was wounded by a crown of thorns, Nickell said, are “inconsistent with what we know about scalp wounds,” which would have matted the hair.

Even the lance wound in Christ’s right side should have brought “rivulets” of blood, rather than the small patch of blood on the shroud, he contends.

‘Just Like a Painting’

“Very neat, just like a painting,” scoffed Nickell, who has written a book debunking the shroud.

Besides, the “blood” on the shroud is really paint, he believes. Microanalysis of fibers from the shroud, Nickell said, show particles of ferric oxide, which could have been an ingredient of red paint.

Then there’s the question of how the image on the shroud got there in the first place.

Nickell shows a slide of an image that he himself made, covering his own face with rouge and pressing it into a piece of linen. Unlike the almost-perfect Christ image, Nickell’s is grotesquely misshapen, like that of a punch-drunk boxer, its nose flattened and its brows swollen.

“There’s a grotesque wrap-around distortion because of the laws of geometry,” Nickell said.

‘Radiant Energy’

Pro-shroud theorists have offered a number of explanations for the image, from blood and burial ointment being pressed against the cloth to short bursts of “radiant energy” emanating from the body of Christ.

Nickell disputes them all, concluding that the artist who allegedly cooked up the shroud used a bas relief carving of Christ to impress an image on cloth.

Nickell claims to have duplicated the original process, using a bas relief image of Bing Crosby to press an image onto cloth. The so-called “shroud of Bing,” as exhibited in a slide, has many of the Shroud of Turin’s characteristics, including a remarkable life-likeness when viewed as a photographic negative.

“When I figured it out, the only thing that kept me from running naked in the streets, crying ‘Eureka!’ was that I was fully clothed,” Nickell said.

No Headroom

Finally, there are the actual dimensions of the shroud, which shows both front and back images of a Christ-like figure. The problem is that the head would not have fit as the body is depicted on the shroud, he said.

“One doctor said that, even if Christ had been a pinhead, there’s still too little space there for his scalp,” Nickell said.

The ultimate test will come sometime in 1988, when scientists will use new radiocarbon dating techniques on the Shroud of Turin. If it is shown to date back only to the Middle Ages, it will be proved a fake.

Nickell has little doubt as to the outcome. “No burial cloth in the history of the world ever had an image like this one,” he said.

The debate over the shroud that Sunday was, by the group’s standards, a tranquil one. Other lectures have attracted flinty, hard-nosed believers, ready to argue their beliefs to the death.

Believer in Big Foot

“We used to have a Big Foot enthusiast who’d come in and try to disrupt the meetings,” said Seckel.

Few sparks fly today. One questioner could not swallow the idea that, as Nickell has charged, a group of 30 U.S. scientists who examined the shroud and found evidence of its authenticity could have dropped their armor of objectivity, letting their emotions do their thinking.

“They duck and dodge and weave,” said Nickell. “I’m convinced they started with the answer.”

For the most part, the audience seemed convinced--except for a last ounce of critical disbelief that skeptics apparently never relinquish. At the end, Gary Nix, a bearded Caltech alumnus and engineer, stood near the front of the hall, soaking up the babble of measured opinions around him.

“I think it’s debatable,” he said. “Both ways, it’s debatable.”


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