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.
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.
"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:
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.
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