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Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.

St. Jacob’s Oil

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
January 8, 2014
St. Jacob’s Oil

St. Jacob’s Oil, a liniment, was one of the common proprietary remedies for rheumatism and other aches and pains in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its advertisements were not only painted on barns but on fences and even rocks, proclaiming, “St. Jacob’s Oil Conquers Pain.” Sometimes the remedy was touted in verse (Fike 2006, 195):

 

“Philomena”: A Nickell-odeon Review

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
January 6, 2014

Judi Dench is wonderful in the title role of Philomena Lee, a real woman who spent half a century searching for the out-of-wedlock son she had been forced to give up.

 

“Mandela”—A Nickell-odeon Review

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
December 30, 2013

The death of one of the great people of the twentieth century, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela (1918–2013), had mixed consequences to the movie based on his life: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

 

“The Book Thief”: A Nickell-odeon Review

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
December 18, 2013

Based on the book of the same title (the very popular novel for young adults by Markus Zusak), The Book Thief is as endearing a story as seems possible given its setting in Nazi Germany.

 

Ghost-hunter Arsonists?

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
December 16, 2013

In folklore studies, a “legend trip” is the term for a visit to a site that has a legend (a narrative reflecting a folk belief) about uncanny events there—say the activities of ghosts; the visit is made to test the legend. Such a legend trip resulted in seven men being arrested for the suspected arson of a historic Louisiana plantation house on November 21, 2013.

 

Bigfoot Lookalikes: Tracking Hairy Man-Beasts

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 37.5, September/October 2013

Investigative Files
Bigfoot Lookalikes: Tracking Hairy Man-Beasts

Over my years as a skeptical cryptozoologist, I have looked for real, natural lookalikes to explain various reported “monsters.” Are there animals that might be mistaken for Bigfoot?

Bones of Contention

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
December 11, 2013

On Sunday, November 24, 2013, the Vatican, via Pope Francis, publicly unveiled for the first time several bone fragments that some have claimed are those of St. Peter himself. Retrieved in 1942 from beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, they have since been bones of contention.

Awardee

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
December 6, 2013

I am very grateful for two awards recently bestowed on me.

Martin Gardner’s Autobiography

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
December 4, 2013

The man whom Stephen Jay Gould called rationality’s “single brightest beacon” has given us yet another fine book, his posthumously published Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner (Princeton University Press, 2013). It has an introduction by Persi Diaconis and an afterword by James Randi.

Visiting an Urban “Village Church”

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
December 3, 2013

My wife Diana and I went on another religabout—our contraction for religion and walkabout, which describes an excursion to observe or experience some religious activity.

Another SHC Death That Wasn’t

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
November 26, 2013

The caller identified himself as “a longtime fan” and had a case for me to look into, he said. A New Jersey man had been found inexplicably incinerated on a state park path. He wondered if it might be an instance of spontaneous human combustion. I explained that the scientific evidence for that possibility was non-existent, but that I would have a look anyway.

Holy Apparitions and “Cryptic Photos”

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
November 25, 2013

On November 10, 2013, my wife Diana and I went on one of our religabouts (excursions to observe or experience some religion-related event—see my blog of January 14, 2013). We responded to an ad in the Buffalo News to learn about “the powerful apparitions” of Jesus and Mary and “awe-inspiring cryptic photos” at a Catholic shrine in Queens, N.Y.

Sylvia Browne: A Post-Mortem

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
November 21, 2013

“Celebrity psychic” and professed medium Sylvia Browne has died. (Pause here while we all try to get a grip.) The notorious pretender Browne—formerly Brown (and therein lies a story), who was born Sylvia Celeste Shoemaker in 1936—died November 20, 2013, at the age of 77. To skeptics who gleefully claim she failed to foresee her own death, one must note that she did appear to recognize the end was near, but that that information came from medical science, not spirit guides.

“12 Years a Slave”: A Nickell-odeon Review

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
November 19, 2013

This is not a movie to enjoy, but it is one that will amply repay one’s time spent watching it.

Water Nymph

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
November 12, 2013
Water Nymph
 

Mind Over Metal

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 37.4, July/August 2013

Investigative Files
Mind Over Metal

Can people move or alter physical objects simply by using a hidden power of the mind called psychokinesis? I have encountered many claims of such powers in the course of my work (since 1969) as a paranormal investigator.

Tea Party Movement

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
October 17, 2013
Tea Party Movement
 

Bigfool Times

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
October 16, 2013

My article that presented the evidence for standing bears as the source for many Bigfoot sightings (Skeptical Inquirer Sept./Oct. 2013) was reasonable and respectful of other views. The response from Daniel Perez of Bigfoot Times was anything but—accusing me of dishonesty and stupidity. Perez got me in his sights (he thought) and squeezed off a few shots—shooting himself, well, in his big foot. It seems, for starters, that he did what he accused me of.

Nickell’s Skeptickles: Daffynitions A-Z

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
October 10, 2013

Here are some wacky definitions that skeptics may find amusing. (I am, of course, following the lead of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911, originally published as The Cynic’s Word Book, 1906.)

Messages from ‘Star Families’—in the ET Language

Skeptical Briefs Volume 23.1, Spring 2013

Investigative Files

Cassandra Vanzant’s claims are legion. At one time or another she has acted as a tarot-card reader and instructor, ghost hunter, spiritualist medium, angel communicant, ordained minister, professional psychic, and of course, telepathic “Master Alien Communicator.”

A Lesson in “Spin”

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
October 2, 2013

As we know, political groups put their own “spin” on news stories. Let’s suppose that, while strolling near the White House, President Obama discovered a wallet on the sidewalk and returned it to its owner. Here is how some different sources might report the story.

Chupacabra, or Déjà Chu?

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
September 20, 2013

Another (yawn) chupacabra has been reported, this time by a good ol’ boy in rural Leake County, Mississippi.

Oklahoma Man Didn’t Die of SHC

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
September 17, 2013

You heard it here early on: The elderly Oklahoman who supposedly died of “Spontaneous Human Combustion” (SHC) on February 18, 2013, did not perish from that nonexistent phenomenon. Now the medical examiner in the case fully agrees, contradicting the earlier speculations of the local sheriff.

Moral Red Line

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
September 11, 2013
Moral Red Line
 

“Compound Oxygen”: Quackery of Yore

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
September 4, 2013
“Compound Oxygen”: Quackery of Yore

When I purchased the blue bottle pictured here, I suspected it was a relatively rare item with an unusual story. I was right on both counts.

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”—A Nickell-odeon Review

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
August 29, 2013

Lee Daniels’ The Butler, though awkwardly titled, is a first-rate movie that tells the story of one of the greatest achievements of American history, the Civil Rights Movement. It is seen through the eyes of a White House butler, whose service extended through eight presidents, from Eisenhower to Reagan.

Update: India’s “Human Torch” Baby

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
August 26, 2013

To recap: News reports (e.g., Times of India, August 13, 2013) told of an infant from rural India who had suffered four instances of what some believed was “spontaneous human combustion” (SHC—a phenomenon not accepted by science, although believed by a few crank scientists).

“Human Torch” Baby: SHC or Abuse?

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
August 15, 2013

According to news reports (e.g., timesofindia.india-times.com, August 13, 2013), a baby boy from a village in Tamil Nadu, India, “caught fire” on four occasions. Since so many incidents were unlikely to be accidents, some persons were suggesting the case might be one of “spontaneous human combustion” (SHC). I received a request to “please help this child” from a young Indian man (who sent me the link to the story) and also a request for an interview by a reporter from MSN.com, Dustin Seibert. I told the latter I was concerned about the child’s safety—though not from SHC. (Interview online at news.msn.com/rumors/rumor-baby-suffer-from-spontaneous-combustion; August 14, 2013.)

Dr. Porter and His Healing Oil

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
August 12, 2013

In doing some research (for my “Historical Sketches” column in my hometown newspaper) I unexpectedly came across a mid-1920s photo showing small tin signs for “Dr. Porter’s Healing Oil” affixed to the front of a store warehouse. I wondered: just who was Dr. Porter, and what was the story behind his medicinal product?

Firewalker Willey Cartooned!

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
August 1, 2013

Skepticism’s great friend, David Willey—who became famous as the “Mad Scientist” on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno—has been featured in the nationally syndicated comic strip, Jump Start, drawn by Robb Armstrong.

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