I’m a natural born skeptic. It all started when I was a teenager, reading Edgar Allen Poe. He wrote an essay entitled Maelzel’s Chess Player. Maelzel invented the metronome still in use today to teach piano. Beethoven wrote a little tune mocking the metronome. “Tat tat tat tat tat tat tat ta-ta-ta ta-ta-ta ta-ta-ta un lieber, lieber Maelzel.” After all these years, I can still hear it.
Maelzel also invented a mechanical chess player. He took it around America, subjecting it to inspection by all the leading experts and beating the best chess players in America. The experts concluded it was in fact a machine.
Poe went to one of these exhibitions and wrote about it. After one inspection, he estimated the height and approximate girth of the midget hidden within the mechanical device. He determined the nature and type of levers used to control the device and how Maelzel was passing him the correct moves.
He didn’t even bother to confirm his findings. He left that to others. He was right and Maelzel’s exhibition came to an ignominious end. This had a powerful impact on my young mind. Then I read The Murders in the Rue Morgue, about a seemingly supernatural event for which he gave the natural explanation. It was a work of fiction.
And of course, The Mystery of Marie Roget was the first time anyone ever solved a murder by publication. Until Errol Morris made the documentary, The Thin Blue Line, it was the only time anyone ever solved a murder by publication. The murder of Mary Rogers had created a sensation in his day. Poe substituted the names and solved the murder without ever visiting the crime scene. He used newspaper accounts.
What I learned from Poe at the tender age of sixteen is that accounts of supernatural events are frequently fictitious. Healthy skepticism and hard headed analysis is often all you need to unravel the mystery. And if someone witnesses a supernatural event, there’s a good chance their either playing a trick, or honestly mistaken.
The Philistines took the Ark of the Covenant and placed it next to their own god, Dagon. The next day, they found Dagon lying face down in front of the Ark. They picked him up, put him back and the next day, found him face down in front of the Ark again. This time, the head and both arms were detached, lying beside the trunk.
There was a sudden rash of hemorrhoids throughout the city. The Philistines ascribed it all to the presence of the Ark. They tried moving it to another city. That city too, was struck with a sudden rash of hemorrhoids. They sent the Ark to a third city, but that city wanted no part of it. Death and hemorrhoids seemed to accompany the Ark wherever it went.