The Art of Cherry-Picking
by Guy Lyon Playfair
‘As a magician experienced in the dynamics of trickery, I have carefully examined Playfair’s lengthy account of the disturbances at Enfield and have concluded that they are best explained as children’s pranks.’
This weighty pronouncement comes from CSI (formerly CSICOP)’s chief hit-man and serial cherry-picker Joe Nickell, in whose opinion I am a ‘crank author on paranormal subjects’ who ‘ignores any skeptical literature’.
If that were true, I wouldn’t be commenting on his piece in the Skeptical Inquirer (2012, 36 (4)) which I will now do – briefly – as it doesn’t deserve discussing at much length.
The art of cherry-picking involves selecting such evidence as suits your case and either dismissing or just ignoring all the rest. Nickell has collected quite a basket of unripe and rotten cherries from his ‘careful examination’ of This House is Haunted, while leaving all the ripe ones on the tree, waving his magic wand and making them all disappear. Among many items and incidents he makes no attempt to explain away or even mention, here are just ten:
• The photo taken by Graham Morris at the moment he was hit on the forehead by a piece of Lego thrown hard enough to give him a nasty bruise on his forehead, his photo showing clearly that nobody (visible) had thrown it.
• A sequence on Graham’s motor-drive Nikon showing a curtain twisting itself into a tight spiral and apparently being blown into the room although the window behind it was closed, and another sequence clearly showing bedclothes moving untouched by any incarnate human hand.
• Several photos showing Janet seemingly levitating with outstretched legs and without her bedclothes having been pulled back, as directly witnessed on one occasion by her mother.
• The built-in gas fireplace (luckily disconnected) which weighed about 20 kilos being wrenched out of the wall, bending the connecting brass pipe.
• The large cushion appearing instantaneously on the roof in full view of the tradesman walking towards the house, an experience from which he had not recovered thirty years later.
• The lollipop lady’s clear account, frequently repeated, of seeing Janet levitating to a height of at least two feet and floating around in circles. Again, this was in her direct line of sight, from her post at the school crossing directly in front of the house.
• The book transported into the house next door, which was locked and unoccupied at the time, there being no conceivable normal explanation as to how it got there.
• The laryngograph evidence that the male bass voice repeatedly heard coming out of Janet’s mouth was produced by her plica ventricularis (false vocal folds), which cannot be kept up for long even by trained actors without getting a very sore throat. This was witnessed by a professional speech therapist who was unable to explain it.
• The evidence produced by the ‘Voice’ that nobody in the family knew, such as the fact that the previous occupant went blind and died in a chair downstairs, as was only confirmed many years after the end of the case.
• The anomalous malfunctions of the Pye Newvicon video camera, the BBC’s Uher reel tape recorder, and Graham Morris’s flashguns, none of which could be explained by the experienced professionals concerned.
I could go on, but I think you get the message. As for ‘experienced magician’ Joe Nickell’s comment on Janet’s frequently repeated admission that she and her sister played a few tricks ‘just to see if Mr Grosse and Mr Playfair would catch us, and they always did’, estimating that they amounted to ‘I’d say two percent’ of the incidents we recorded, Nickell spins this into ‘the evidence suggests that this figure is closer to 100 percent.’
What evidence? Oh, never mind. There’s no need for evidence when a sweeping generalization will do, especially if it is unsourced. I see from Nickell’s entry on the site misleadingly called Rational Wiki that his interests include ‘the investigation of bullshit claims.’
Which does not seem to have stopped him making such claims himself.