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In the Media: 2013 Activities of Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell

January 15, 2014

As CSI’s Senior Research Fellow Joe Nickell continued his work—now in the middle of his fifth decade—of investigating the world’s paranormal, historical, and forensic mysteries. A former stage magician, a twice-promoted operative for a world-famous detective agency, and a literary scholar (Ph.D. in English literature, with an emphasis on literary investigation and folklore), Nickell also has a strong background in both historical research and forensics. He is the author (or co-author or editor) of some forty books, including Unsolved History, Crime Science, and Looking for a Miracle. He has appeared on numerous television shows, such as Oprah, and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on the Today show.

In 2013 he published his latest book, The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible (Prometheus Books), dedicated in memory of humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz (1925–2012), “founder of the worldwide skeptics movement.” Physicist Victor J. Stenger (author of God and the Atom) called it “the magnum opus of the world’s top paranormal investigator.” And science writer Massimo Polidoro reported, “In this book, some of the most incredible supposed miracles are carefully examined by the watchful eye of the incomparable Joe Nickell, a magnificent storyteller and a splendid detective.” (Polidoro once labeled Nickell “The Detective of the Impossible.”)

The Science of Miracles was chosen by the BBC’s magazine Focus: Science and Technology for its June book-of-the-month selection. Illustrated by the face on the Shroud of Turin, the magazine’s review by Chris French stated: “There is probably no-one in the world better qualified to write a book assessing the evidence relating to alleged miracles than Joe Nickell. . . . Nickell brings a wide range of skills to the task, including expertise in forensics, psychology, handwriting analysis and folklore. The result is an expert evaluation of the world’s most famous miracle claims along with many lesser-known cases.” The review was accompanied by a “Meet the Author” interview.

In addition to his own book, Nickell contributed to others, for example, his affectionate cartoon of the late Martin Gardner (the father of modern skepticism) appearing in Gardner’s posthumously published autobiography, Undiluted Hocus Pocus. He also wrote the foreword for Edward Steers, Jr.’s Hoax: Hitler Diaries, Lincoln’s Assassins, and Other Famous Frauds. And his work was cited in several other books.

Again and again, Nickell was filmed for television shows. He was profiled on Discovery Channel Canada’s Daily Planet, featured (explaining the Lake George monster hoax) on the Travel Channel’s Monumental Mysteries, and filmed for several segments of RAW TV’s The Unexplained Files (“Mothman,” alien abductions, spontaneous human combustion, etc.), as well as MSNBC’s Caught on Camera (Bigfoot, “Alien Autopsy,” Oklahoma Junkyard Ghost). On National Geographic Wild’s Monster Fish, Nickell recreated a famous historical faux photo of a giant catfish.

In addition, the popular Travel Channel series, Mysteries at the Museum, featured two items from Nickell’s personal collection of artifacts—online as CFI’s Skeptiseum (i.e., skeptical museum of the paranormal). One was an antique séance spirit trumpet, the other a scarce bottle (with contents, in its original box) of Clark Stanley’s infamous Snake Oil Liniment. (The Skeptiseum—now a member of the Small Museums Association—is presently being given a makeover. Should donor money become available, Nickell has acquired enough artifacts to at least triple the size of the Skeptiseum.)

Nickell also appeared as a guest on several radio programs, such as a panel discussion on superstitions (Charlotte, NC), an update on the Shroud of Turin (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), analysis of various miracle claims (Dublin, Ireland), and more. He was also interviewed on podcasts, including the BBC’s Science Focus, and for various blogs, including Live Science, Alkek Library News (Texas State University), and John W. Loftus’ Debunking Christianity. He was also interviewed (about Atlantis) by Slate.com, and (on after-death communication) by Legacy.com, and he wrote for the Huffington Post (an illustrated piece on “10 Fake Historical Miracles”).

Print and online news sources that sought Nickell’s expertise included the Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel, Kansas City Star, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Raleigh News Observer, and many others. Nickell was the prominently featured skeptic regarding the notorious Shroud of Turin in an article in the National Catholic Register. (Unfortunately Nickell’s scientific and historical evidence was followed by a proponent’s smokescreen of pseudoevidence, pseudoscience, and clever rationalizations.)

In 2013, Nickell received two special awards. The first was CFI’s The Robert P. Balles Annual Prize in Critical Thinking for his book, The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead (Prometheus, 2012). The handsome plaque and $2500 are given “for a published work that best exemplifies a healthy skepticism, logical analysis, or empirical science.” In presenting the award, Skeptical Inquirer editor Kendrick Frazier said Nickell was “the epitome of a skeptical investigator,” adding: “Both in the quality and quantity of his investigations, he is a wonder, a true national treasure—international treasure really, because he investigates and is read everywhere he goes around the world. . . .”

Nickell also received the Charles Chilton Moore–John Scopes Award, presented by the Kentucky Freethought Convention. Recipients were honored for their work in science education and freethought. (With the late, great skeptic, psychologist Dr. Robert A. Baker, Nickell was a founder of the Kentucky Association of Science Educators and Skeptics.)

In addition, he gave many lectures and conference contributions (e.g., at the Pennsylvania State Atheist/Humanist 2013 Conference in Philadelphia, and the CFI Summit in Tacoma, Washington. Also, as he has annually for many years, he participated in Science Exploration Day for high school students held at the University at Buffalo. (On occasion his session, “Investigating ‘Paranormal’ Mysteries,” has been “the highest ranked” by the students.)

In Skeptical Inquirer science magazine, Nickell published the results of several of his investigations: the “miracle dirt” at Chimayó, New Mexico; famous Scotland mysteries (e.g., “The Silly Ness Monster,” the “Green Ghost” of Stirling Castle, and the remarkable “witch” Isobel Gowdie); and a history of detective and detectives (in and out of fiction), as well as a hands-on investigation of “psychokinetic” spoon bending. Also, he and Major James McGaha (USAF retired) provided an in-depth solution to a famous UFO cold case, “The Valentich Disappearance” and a seminal “Treatise on Invisible Beings,” with profound implications to many areas of the paranormal.

In Skeptical Briefs (CSI newsletter) and his blog, Investigative Briefs, Nickell reported on much of his other investigatory work. Highlights were “Tracking Florida’s Skunk Ape,” the “Miracle” statue of Fatima, a rare spiritualists photograph, the “haunted” Bell Witch Cave, the Turin “shroud,” and other investigations, including cases of alleged spontaneous human combustion, psychic sleuthery, communication with ETs, etc. Nickell also reported on receiving a certificate from “Bigfoot School,” and included among his blogs original poems, political cartoons, movie criticisms (“Nickell-odeon Reviews”) and various satires and comedy (?) pieces—intended for the skeptic and secular humanist (which he defines as “an atheist with a heart).”

A major, continuing investigative project of Nickell’s involves tracking what he affectionately calls “The Bigfoot Bear.” Analyzing over a thousand Bigfoot reports, he concluded that a great number are probably misidentifications of upright-standing bears—their common stance when in the alert mode. In 2013 Nickell went on excursions—as he has before at Bluff Creek, California, the Florida Panhandle, and elsewhere—into the Adirondacks of New York and the slopes (at 5,500 feet) of Washington’s Mount Rainier (the latter with a professional guide). These are all alleged wilderness homes for Bigfoot and definite habitats for its closest lookalike, “The Bigfoot Bear.” Nickell has completed further reports on the subject that await publication.

Meanwhile, Nickell continues work on numerous other investigations and has several articles and books in progress. And he continues to be sought frequently by the media. His website is at joenickell.com, and he is on Facebook and Twitter.

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

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.