Recently Skeptical Inquirer writer Benjamin Radford posted a question to the Facebook Group thread for Skeptic magazine’s cryptozoology-themed podcast MonsterTalk on the topic of the infamous Patterson-Gimlin film purported to show a sasquatch striding across a sandbar in the woods. What are we to make, Radford wondered, of claims that the film cannot be duplicated because it would be too expensive, too difficult technically—or perhaps even impossible to recreate due to the anatomical limits of human actors? I responded to say that all such arguments are in my opinion baloney, but that this does not necessarily imply that attempts to recreate the film to the satisfaction of fair viewers actually ever will succeed. Even if the original was a crude hoax accomplished by cheap, simple means (as I suspect) it may still be the case that it can never be matched.
The reason goes well beyond Patterson or Bigfoot or cryptozoology, and right to the heart of artistic creation. It’s a truth I learned in painting and photography, a truth I live with every day in my work as as a writer and illustrator: sometimes you just get lucky. Sometimes things just work. There’s no great reason for it, no secret key you can turn a second time. Sometimes lightning strikes—and then it is gone. As an artist you seize those moments of magic, knowing you cannot get them back.
The significance of this in relation to the study of paranormal claims was perhaps best explained by skeptical pioneer Harry Houdini:
Again many of the effects produced by mediums are impulsive, spasmodic, done on the spur of the moment, inspired or promoted by the attending circumstances, and could not be duplicated by themselves. Because the circumstances of their origin and performance are so peculiar detection and duplication of Spiritualistic phenomena is sometimes a most complex task. Not only are mediums alert to embrace every advantage offered by auto-suggestion but they also take advantage of every accidental occurrence. For instance, my greatest feat of mystery was performed in 1922…at the home of Mr. B.M.L. Ernest. The children were waiting to set off their display of fireworks when it started to rain. The heavens fairly tore loose. Little Richard in his dismay turned to me and said:
“Can’t you make the rain stop?”
“Why certainly,” I replied and raising my hands said appealingly, “Rain and Storm, I command you to stop.”
This I repeated three times and, as if by miracle, within the next two minutes the rain stopped and the skies became clear. Toward the end of the display of fireworks the little fellow turned to me and with a peculiar gleam in his eyes said:
“Why, Mr. Houdini, it would have stopped raining anyway.” I knew I was risking my whole life’s reputation with the youngster but I said:
“Is that so? I will show you.” Walking out in front I raised my hands suppliantly toward the heavens and with all the command and force I had in me called:
“Listen to my voice, great Commander of the rain, and once more let the water flow to earth and allow the flowers and trees to bloom.”
A chill came over me for as if in response to my command or the prayer of my words another downpour started, but despite the pleading of the children I refused to make it stop again. I was not taking any more chances.1
I’ve come to privately think of the problem of unreproducible one-offs as the “spilled paint” or “Jackson Pollock effect.” Due to the roles of chance and contingency, an event may be astonishingly, stupidly easy to create the first time, yet effectively impossible to duplicate through the same means. Imagine throwing a bucket of paint at a wall. A monkey could literally do that; and yet, no virtuosity of bucket-chucking will suffice to make that exact same splash pattern a second time, no matter how many walls we deface. Skeptics would do well to internalize Houdini’s warning on this score. “I believe,” he said, “that the great majority of so-called manifestations can be duplicated but I am not prepared to include all, because, as before explained, some are spontaneous, and cannot be reproduced by the mediums themselves unless the identical opportunity should present itself, which is as uncertain as lightning striking twice in the same place—possible but improbable.”2
Contingency means not only that some effects are impossible to recreate, but also that some must remain forever unsolved. It would be nice if there were always a trail of evidence, a smoking gun, but the world is not so kind. We’re left with anomalies, dead ends, unanswered questions. This has disquieting implications not only for skeptical investigators, but also for those paranormal proponents whose hopes are built upon a tantalizing “residue of unexplainable cases.” Many of those least explicable cases are to be expected by chance alone. It is simply the nature of the world: sometimes a bolt of lightning looks an awful lot like a miracle.
- Houdini, Harry. A Magician Among the Spirits. (Amsterdam: Fredonia Books, 2002.) pp. 245–246
- Ibid. p. 247