Monday, May 16, 2011

NAMI-ste

Spring is the season when fantastical claims of supernatural discoveries surface. What will it be this year? Will new evidence of alien landing sites be discovered? Will we be privy to the true location of the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, or the True Cross? Last year it was Noah’s Ark.

           When Jesus returns in less than a week I will have such a dumb look on my face….

I like to believe that innocent and well meaning Christians simply “got it wrong” when they forward fantastical claims. This was easier when claims were as ephemeral as rumor. Last year’s Noah’s Ark claim was resplendent with experts and video footage.

I must admit that I am a bit of a sucker for visual imagery. Just a couple of years ago I was sent an e-mail containing an image purportedly gleaned from a South Carolina local-TV weather report. The description of the image was complete with date, time, station name, and even the name of the weather reporter. The image showed clouds unmistakably shaped like human hands opening a hole in the sky.

God opening the sky so his love can more easily spill forth

I knew the cloud photo was some faked Photoshop trick, but I lacked proof. I set about tracking down the particulars mentioned in the cloud photo’s backstory in order to verify them.

I also knew that last year’s Noah’s Ark claims must be false. “Knowing” the veracity of a claim before investigating it puts one at a serious disadvantage. Because of the motivating prejudice the research is more a process of prosecuting an opinion than investigating a potential truth. I constantly catch myself wondering if I think a particularly interesting bit of information piques my interest because it is especially illuminating, or because it is especially in agreement with my prejudice.

The discovery of Noah’s Ark on a Turkish mountain was reported by NAMI (Noah’s Ark Ministries International) in March-April 2010. For seven years a group of devout Christians headquartered in Hong Kong had repeatedly traveled half-way across the globe to hike around a somewhat picturesque Turkish mountain in the hopes of “discovering” Noah’s ark. In the spring of 2009 they received photos taken from inside the ark. In the spring of 2010 they traveled to the site on Mount Ararat and “touched Noah’s Ark”.

Luckily for them NAMI was affiliated with Media Evangelism Limited. This made it so much easier for NAMI to package their disjoint expedition footage into a glossy film. In the film rough-hewn timbers are uncovered from mountain ice. Images of huge cavernous rooms are grainily revealed to a jittery cone of flashlight illumination.

Wood samples were reported removed from the Noah’s Ark site, and then subjected to Carbon-14 dating. The Carnon-14 dates reported by NAMI were consistent with the “known” date of Noah’s flood. When I read this I was amazed at the fact that Carbon-14 could so accurately demonstrate the time of Noah’s flood, but was incompetent at showing that the world was more than six thousand years old.

My research into the cloud photo uncovered the fact that the TV station mentioned in the description both existed, and existed in South Carolina. Further research confirmed that there was a weatherman at the station with the name given in the description. Google Earth helped me locate both the station’s headquarters and the reported location of the divine atmospheric phenomenon. They were close enough to one another to plausibly support a connection.

I began thinking that strange cloud formations might be possible. Could it be that the light was just right to create the illusion of hands stretching open a hole in the sky? I looked too real to be real. I questioned myself for thinking that something could look so real that it must be a fake. I decided to dig deeper.

I sent an e-mail with the photo and description attached to the weatherman. I did not get an answer in 24 hours so I sent the photo and description to every e-mail address associated with the TV station that I could find. I remember that it was someone from the marketing division who wrote me back first.

The NAMI discovery also underwent intense scrutiny. There is apparently a field of inquiry called “Ark Hunting”. Other Ark Hunters were invited to look at NAMI’s evidence. There was at least one credentialed archeologist who was invited to look at the evidence. However, Randall Price (who is president of World of the Bible Ministries, Inc.) was not the most potentially unbiased archaeologist they could find I’m sure.

These evangelical Christina scrutinizers came back with the opinion that the find was not Noah’s Ark. Some of the pictures were from another site entirely, and were doctored to flow into the new claims. Some of the wood samples were not even wood; they were a volcanic stone called tuff.

Then, as if the rebuke from their fellow ark believers was not bad enough, things really began falling apart for NAMI’s claims.

The e-mails that I received from the small South Carolina TV station were unanimous in their denial of the picture. They were even somewhat abrupt and defensive. They “never took this picture” and had “no idea where the picture came from”. Some of the people from the TV station had obviously faulty keyboards as their capslock-keys were stuck on.

People researching the NAMI claims tracked down the support crew pictured in NAMI’s video. They were treated to a detailed description fo how they had hauled timbers up Mount Ararat and constructed what they referred to as “the movie set”. Some of the scenes of the big wooden rooms, they explained, were shot in structures on the shore of the Black Sea; hundreds of kilometers away from the location they were described as having in the film.

The Ark Hunters who helped debunk the NAMI claims explained that NAMI was just “not looking in the right place”. This does not sound like the “they were lying about something that does not exist” announcement I would have expected. I bet things will be just too chaotic during Saturday’s rapture to get clarification on the Noah’s Ark issue from those who should be in the know.

It was several weeks later that someone explained to me that the Photoshopped cloud formation I was using as a computer desktop background was an image of something called a goatse. After looking up goatse I discovered that it is a self-destructive mutilation technique where the practitioner manually dilates their anus to flesh-ripping diameters. Pictures of the procedure vie with autopsy porn for most disturbing web images. Many meters of mental floss will be needed to reduce the effect of that research on my mind. I was slightly amused, however, at the realization that I had e-mailed the photo off to a dozen-or-so strangers insisting that each of them help me find out where it came from.