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NHNE News Update:
SI DIGEST / Shroud Letter-Writing Campaign
Tuesday, March 31, 1998


Hello Everyone,

Launching letter-writing campaigns is not something I usually ask all of you to do. But every once and awhile something comes along that requires those of us who are interested in the truth to speak up.

Yesterday, I sent out an NHNE News Update concerning some behind-the-scenes correspondence between myself, Barrie Schwortz and the editors of SI DIGEST, the online newsletter of the COMMITTEE FOR THE SCIENTIFIC INVESTIGATION OF CLAIMS OF THE PARANORMAL (CSICOP), concerning the Shroud of Turin. Essentially, the editors of SI DIGEST ran a story on the Shroud that declared the enigmatic burial cloth "perhaps the world's most notorious religious hoax." I sent the editors a copy of yesterday's Shroud Update, which systematically challenged these views, and included this message:

"If after reviewing this update you conclude, as Barrie Schwortz does, that 'a number of Joe Nickell's claims are either grossly inaccurate or totally in error,' I hope you will alert your readers to these discrepancies in future publications. If, on the other hand, you continue to believe that the views presented by Nickell's are scientifically sound and fairly presented, then I hope you will at least let your readers know that there are other Shroud authorities, many of whom are professional scientists who have studied the Shroud in person, that take strong exception to Mr. Nickell's views and presentation of facts."

How did the editors of SI DIGEST respond to this plea for fair, impartial, and rigorously-professional coverage of the Shroud of Turin controversy? Instead of retracting their original story, answering the objections raised by Schwortz (who maintains the world's most comprehensive, well-connected, and authoritative source for information concerning all aspects of Shroud research), or acknowledging that many worldclass scientists feel the Shroud is authentic, the editors of SI DIGEST chose instead to republish Nickell's original comments, backed up by new ones in their newest issue of SI DIGEST -- just out today (included below).

Judging by the heavy-handed, close-minded way the editors of SI DIGEST have dealt with this situation, all CSICOP research, opinions, and publications now seem suspect. Since CSICOP presents itself as a champion "of science and scientific inquiry, critical thinking, science education, and the use of reason in examining important issues," and since CSICOP is also becoming an increasingly public, vocal, and influential debunker of all things paranormal, I would like to do what we can to balance the scales. Planet Earth, long the home of wild, unsubstantiated claims and biased, disrespectful inquisitions, needs more human beings that are interested in mounting a genuine, mutually-respectful search for truth, wherever that might lead. I encourage those of you who feel the nudge to write or call the editors of SI DIGEST (email:, phone:716-636-1425) and respectfully request that along with presenting their own opinions concerning the Shroud, that they also include the opinions of other highly-regarded Shroud experts. I also encourage all of you to forward copies of the Shroud Update I sent out yesterday to everyone you think might be interested -- and let them know about this controversy. While it is important to seriously investigate all paranormal and spiritual claims as CSICOP encourages people to do, it is also important to be sure legitimate paranormal and spiritual claims are not brazenly discredited.

If you decide to help hold CSICOP accountable to the kind of thorough, scientific, unbiased investigation they advocate, James and I would appreciate being copied on your email comments to them:

James Gregory (
David Sunfellow (

Also, while some of the other topics covered in the following SI DIGEST probably deserve to be treated with the same kind of fairness, open-mindedness, and respect we are seeking for the Shroud, I encourage those of you who decide to write to keep your comments focused on the Shroud, which is backed up by decades of serious scientific research and can't be as easily dismissed as other controversial subjects.

Thanks for your help!

With Love & Best Wishes,
David Sunfellow



For free Digest subscriptions, go to:

March 31, 1998

SI Electronic Digest is the e-mail news update of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP.)


The Digest is written and edited by Matthew Nisbet and Barry Karr. SI Digest has over 1800 readers worldwide, and is distributed via e-mail from the Center for Inquiry-International, Amherst N.Y., USA.


For free Digest subscriptions, go to:

(If you lack web browser access, e-mail:

Send comments, media inquiries and news to:

CSICOP publishes the bi-monthly SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, The Magazine for Science and Reason. To subscribe at the $16.95 introductory price, call 1800- 634-1610. The Jan/Feb issue features Claudio Benski on "Testing New Claims of Dermo-Optical Perception."

In this week's SI Digest:

-- APRIL FOOL'S DAY RELEASE: Top 10 Strangest Hoaxes of All Time.

-- MEDIA ALERT: Shroud of Turin.

-- DISCOVER MAGAZINE Investigates the Lake Champlain Monster.

-- FORTEAN TIMES Chronicles Mexican UFO Hoax.


Don't Be Fooled: Strange Hoaxes That Endure
Joe Nickell Matt Nisbet

April Fool! That gleeful pronouncement greets victims one day each year. The celebration of April Fool's Day is of obscure origin but became common in eighteenth-century England. Among the memorable pranks launched on April 1 was one perpetrated by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1980. They announced that the landmark London clock, Big Ben, was going digital and that the famous clock hands would therefore be given away! Such pranks are examples of hoaxes, and April Fool's Day is an appropriate opportunity to look at them.

The word hoax is thought to be a shortening of "hocus-pocus"a synonym for trickery that in turn came from hoc corpus est, a Latin phrase from the Catholic mass spoken when the bread is supposedly transformed into the body of Christ.

A hoax is an intentional deception. Distinguished from a fraud, which is perpetrated primarily for gain, a hoax is characterized by the nature of the deception. It may involve money or not, but essentially a hoax is an imposition on the victim's credulity. It may range from harmless mischief, such as that associated with April Fool's Day, or it may have a more cruel or sinister aspect.

Typical of the range of hoaxes is the following "top-ten list" compiled by the staff at the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), publisher of SKEPTICAL INQUIRER magazine. Paranormal claims those beyond the range of nature and normal human experience frequently involve hoaxes, and some are outright frauds.

* * * *

1. Roswell Incident

In 1947 a "flying disc" crashed near Roswell, New Mexico. Rancher Mac Brazel described the debris as foiled paper, sticks, string, and tape consistent with a radar reflector, once thought part of a weather balloon but now identified as a Project Mogul spy balloon. Over time the story has prompted many hoaxes, including the "MJ-12" documents (forged papers which supposedly proved presidential involvement in a cover-up of the UFO crash), stories of aliens stored at secret installations (tales largely spread by a raconteur, "professor" Robert Carr), and an "alien autopsy" (broadcast on the Fox television network and featuring an obviously rubber humanoid-type figure). Despite well-documented evidence exposing the Roswell hoax, the tale persists as part of the American consciousness. A 1997 Gallup poll revealed that over 80% of Americans have heard of the Roswell incident, and 31% believe that a spacecraft from another planet did indeed crash at Roswell in 1947. In addition, the UFO-government conspiracy lore ignited by the hoaxes has inspired major plot themes in the mega-popular X-Files television series and films like Independence Day and Men in Black.

(See SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, Winter 1990 & Nov./Dec. 1995)


2. Spiritualism

Belief in communicating with the dead is ancient, but modern spiritualism began in 1848 when two girls , Margaret and Katherine Fox, apparently received messages from the ghost of a murdered peddler. He responded to their questions by knocking a certain number of times to signal yes, no, or other simple answers. Soon, assisted by an older sister, the girls traveled all over the United States to promote their "Spiritualist" society. Four decades later, however, the sisters revealed to a theater audience how they had tricked the world. Margaret Fox demonstrated how she had slipped her foot from her shoe and snapped her toes to make the rapping sounds. In the meantime, as well as later, spiritualists were caught producing fake phenomena from bogus spirit writing on slates to ghostly entities that proved to be mediums or their assistants in disguise. The most recent incarnation of spiritualism arrives in the form of psychic-medium James Van Praagh, whose book Talking to Heaven is currently atop the best-seller lists.

(SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, Winter 1983-84 & Fall 1985)


3. Psychic Networks

Fortunetelling is an ancient deception now updated for popular mass consumption. Just as gypsy seers practiced clever techniques such as cold reading (an artful method of fishing for information while watching the listener for subtle reactions), modern "psychics" use shrewd methods to appear clairvoyant. For example, many of their responses are phrased in question form, which may, if correct, be considered a "hit" but otherwise will seem an innocent query. Just keeping the caller on the phone, since the psychics are paid by the minute, is an obvious ploy. Some analysts predict that the psychic networks will be a $2 billion industry by the end of the decade. In February, however, mismanagement and competition forced the industry's pioneer network, Psychic Friends, to file for bankruptcyan event that 2000 psychics employed by the network failed to foresee.

(SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, Sept./Oct 1995 & upcoming May/June 1998)


4. Shroud of Turin

Perhaps the world's most notorious religious hoax is the purported Holy Shroud of Jesus, now kept in a cathedral in Turin, Italy. It bears the imprints of an apparently crucified man, but modern forensic tests show the image was done in tempera paint, and radio carbon testing yielded a date between 1260 and 1390. This is consistent with the earliest written record of the cloth, a bishop's report to Pope Clement that an artist confessed he had "cunningly painted" the image. The "shroud" had been part of a phoney faith-healing scheme to bilk credulous pilgrims. Stories of the shroud's authenticity are sure to resurface this spring at the 1998 Shroud Exposition in Turin where the "relic" will be on display to the public for the first time in twenty years.

(SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, Spring 1982 & Spring 1989)


5. Cottingley Fairies

In 1917 two innocent-seeming English schoolgirls, 13-year-old Elsie Wright and her 10-year-old cousin Frances Griffiths, launched a deception that fooled many people over the following years, including the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. While playing in Cottingley Glen, the girls took close-up photographs of winged fairies dancing amid the foliage. The girls then made each other's picture with the wee creatures, and photo experts said the images were not double exposures nor had the negatives been altered. In fact, it was the scene, not the photos, that was faked: the girls had simply posed with fairy cutouts to make the "authentic" pictures. Some sixty years later, the aging Elsie and Frances confessed to what had begun as a prank but soon got out of hand as the story was publicized. Paramount Pictures recently revived the case with the magical release Fairy Tale: A True Story. Unfortunately, the film fails to provide modern audiences with many of the incriminating details of the Cottingley hoax.




6. Crop Circles

Since the late 1970's, mysterious swirled patterns have been appearing in southern English grain fields invariably during nighttime. Some thought the depressions were caused by "wind vortexes," while others, plying their dowsing rods, believed they had a mystical origin, and still others opted for an extraterrestrial explanation: perhaps the designs were communications from alien beings. However, in 1991 two elderly men, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, demonstrated how they had made the first circles, which others copied and elaborated to produce the stylized "pictograms" that became known around the world.



7. Amityville Horror

America's most famous haunted house is located in Amityville, New York, where in 1974 a man murdered his parents and siblings. A year later the house was bought by George and Kathy Lutz who soon claimed they were driven out by spooky events, including demon tracks in the snow and damage to doors and windows. Investigation showed the events never transpired, and the murderer's lawyers confessed how, for money, he and the Lutzes had "created this horror story over many bottles of wine." Despite the admission, the story spawned the best-selling book Amityville Horror and a franchise of successful horror films that continue to be released on video today.

(SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, Winter 1979-80.)


8. Piltdown "Missing Link"

In December of 1912 a major scientific discovery was announced: the long- sought-after "missing link" between man and his prehistoric ancestors was recovered near Piltdown Common in England by an amateur fossil collector named Charles Dawson. In response to skeptics, Dawson sought and found another set of bones, dubbed Piltdown II. The archeological revelations appealed to English pride, since previous discoveries relating to man's origins had been made in Europe and Asia. Piltdown Man quickly became the subject of numerous scientific articles and was enshrined in the British Museum. In 1953, however, the hoax was finally discovered. Eoanthropus dawsoni ("Dawson's Dawn Man") turned out to be a combination of human cranial pieces and the jawbone of an orangutan, stained to appear ancient.



9. Psychic Surgery

Among the most outrageous and dangerous hoaxes is a phoney healing procedure in which a practitioner appears to reach into a patient's body, without benefit of scalpel or anesthesia, to remove "tumors" and other diseased tissue. Common to Brazil and the Philippines, psychic surgery is actually produced by sleight of hand. Animal tissue and blood are used to give a realistic appearance, while a patient's fleshy midriff helps create the illusion that the surgeon's fingers have actually penetrated the body. Tragically, many of the patients, or victims, of the psychic surgeons have died within a year or so of the trick procedure.



10. King Tut's Curse

The "boy king" Tutankhamen ruled Egypt from the age of nine until his death at eighteen, during the twelfth century B.C. His tomb was discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter, but a curse written over the entrance began to take its toll, resulting in the death over the years of many associated with the excavation. Or so it was claimed. In 1980 the tomb's former security officer admitted the story of the curse had been circulated to frighten away thieves. In fact, ten years after the tomb was opened, all but one of the five who first entered it were still living, and Carter himself lived until 1939.



Other paranormal hoaxes include the Cardiff Giant (a nineteenth-century "petrified man"), P.T. Barnum's notorious "mermaid", UFO and Bigfoot hoaxes too numerous to mention, and many more, including weeping religious icons. Even ten examples, however, are sufficient to illustrate that the will to believe is part of human nature, and that hoaxes are not limited to April Fool's Day but are, in fact, a year-round occurrence.

Unfortunately, with the exception of the Piltdown case, people worldwide continue to be fooled by the hoaxes and in some cases, like the Roswell incident and psychic networks, the numbers continue to grow. Too often the explanations or criticisms of these fabricated claims go unheard in the media, while movie makers, television producers and book publishers draw on these hoaxes to weave top-grossing fiction that is often treated as real. Until the media provide more critical presentations of the paranormal, a word of warning is the only known antidote.

(For additional reading, see Kendrick Frazier, ed., SCIENCE CONFRONTS THE PARANORMAL, Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1986.)



APRIL 5, 1998


AMHERST, N.Y. Beginning April 18, for the first time in twenty years, the Shroud of Turin will be on display to the public in Turin, Italy. Despite well-documented forensic and historical evidence to the contrary, the announced viewing has produced renewed claims that the Shroud of Turin is the authentic burial cloth of Jesus.

The following is a summary of the shroud debate by Joe Nickell, Senior Research Fellow with the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP.) Nickell is the author of sixteen books on investigation and the paranormal including INQUEST ON THE SHROUD OF TURIN. During the 1980's, Nickell served on a team of scholarly and scientific experts that evaluated the shroud claims and found them to be false.


The Council for Media Integrity is a network of prominent scientists, academics and members of the media concerned with the balanced portrayal of science in the media. It was launched at the 1996 First World Skeptics Congress and is sponsored by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP.)

For more information, contact Matt Nisbet at 716-636-1425 or


Joe Nickell

For the first time in 20 years, the controversial Shroud of Turin will be placed on exhibit at its home in northern Italy. Not only are pilgrims expected to flock to the site, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, but many claims are expected to be made for the cloth by its defenders. Some facts are therefore in order.

Historically, the Shroud of Turin is one of some forty reputed burial cloths of Jesus, although it is the only one to bear the apparent imprints and bloodstains of a crucified man. Religious critics have long noted that the Turin shroud is incompatible with the bible, which describes multiple burial wrappings, including a separate napkin that covered Jesus face (John 20:57).

The Turin cloth first appeared in north-central France in the mid-fourteenth century. At that time the local bishop uncovered an artist who confessed he had cunningly painted the image. Subsequently, in 1389, Pope Clement VII officially declared the shroud to be only a painted representation.

Years later, this finding was conveniently forgotten by the granddaughter of the original owner. She sold it to the House of Savoy, which later became the Italian monarchy. Eventually the cloth was transferred to Turin. In 1983 Italys exiled king died, bequeathing the shroud to the Vatican.

The shrouds modern history has confirmed the assessment of the skeptical bishop and Pope Clement. Forensic tests of the blood which has remained suspiciously bright red were consistently negative, and in 1980 renowned microanalyst Walter C. McCrone determined that the image was composed of red ocher and vermilion tempera paint.

Finally in 1988 the cloth was radiocarbon dated by three independent labs using accelerator mass spectrometry. The resulting age span of circa 12601390 was given added credibility by correct dates obtained from a variety of control swatches, including Cleopatras mummy wrapping.

These findings are mutually supportive. The tempera paint indicates the image is the work of an artist, which in turn is supported by the bishops claim that an artist confessed, as well as by the prior lack of historical record. The radiocarbon date is consistent with the time of the reported artists confession. And so on.

The approach of impartial scientists has therefore been to let the evidence lead to a conclusion. In contrast, self-styled sindonologists (sindon being Greek for shroud) typically begin with the desired answer and work backward to the evidence challenging anything that would seem incompatible with authenticity.

For example, they claim to have discovered microbial contamination on shroud samples that may have altered the radiocarbon dating. Yet for there to be sufficient contamination to raise the date thirteen centuries there would have to be twice as much debris, by weight, as the entire shroud itself! Moreover, the Vatican and the Archbishop of Turin have challenged the samples authenticity, and Walter McCrone insists that the fibers shown in photomicrographs of the piece of cloth did not come from the Shroud of Turin.

For some, belief will always take precedence over historical and scientific evidence. For others, however, the realization that the shroud never held a body should come as no surprise.



The April issue of DISCOVER magazine features an in-depth article on the Lake Champlain monster legend. Commonly refered to as "Champ", the tale of a large sea monster inhabiting Lake Champlain in northern New York near the Vermont border has grown to be North America's version of Loch Ness.

Well-known writer Dick Teresi quotes CSICOP Senior Research Fellow Joe Nickell, CSICOP consultant Michael Dennett and Harvard zoologist E.O. Wilson in a skeptical article that colorfully unravels the Champ legend. DISCOVER magazine can be found on newstands in your local bookstore.



The April issue of British magazine FORTEAN TIMES critically examines a recent wave of UFO sightings in Mexico. Writer Rob Irving traces how fuzzy video footage has prompted widespread belief that alien craft appeared in the sky over Mexico City. FT is available on bookstore magazine shelves.


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