An Interview With Joe Nickell

-- by Eric Krieg

On April 25, I had the pleasure of talking with arch skeptic Joe Nickell for a few hours before driving him to speak to PhACT for our annual luncheon. Joe is not your "average Joe", by nature of former occupations of: undercover detective, teacher, draft dodger, river boat manager, carnival promoter, magician, investigator, and spokesperson. We owe a special debt to Joe for speaking at our seminal meeting 4 years ago. Joe describes himself as having been raised to be fantasy prone. He has admitted he would honestly prefer that the shroud be the real thing - and the same for ETs. Joe seems to be a sensitive person hurt by the chilling reception he often receives from believers. He has been known to respond to rude "shroudies" with, "I wish y'all would treat me in a more Christian manner".

Joe impressed on me the difference between being a scientist and an investigator. Joe seems to have no significant credentials just as his mentor: James Randi. In both cases, the lack of single significant credentials is much more than offset by a more important broad area of knowledge. Joe remarks that a scientist tends to approach an investigation from the narrow view of his own specialty - where as a "jack of all trades" would come up with more avenues of investigation. Joe feels that the most important thing in investigating is the up front planning of an "investigative strategy" This is a seasoned approach one takes to look into a claim. It may rely on information from libraries, other experts, snooping around, witnesses, help from other skeptics, etc. Joe has credited help from a very wide range of experts and encourages skeptics that such people can easily be cajoled into leading some gratis help just for a little credit and "a piece of the action". Joe (like Randi) is quick to reject the appellation, "debunker" for the more palatable title of "investigator". A debunker would just tend to start with an assumption and line up information to support such a conclusion (the mere flip side of a disingenuous true believer) - where as a investigator, no matter how jaded by experience, is after the facts and could be persuaded by valid evidence of a claim. Joe provided me with a timely example of recently having fairly well validated some Titanic jetsam.

In addition to having done investigations since he was 10, Joe has penned 16 books - his favorites being "Pen and Ink Evidence" and a book my kids love, "The Magic Detectives". Joe deftly backs away from the subject of politics within skepticism - and offers that he tires of skeptics who nit pick other skeptics rather than investigate. He recommends that budding skeptics be willing to "pay their dues", find a topic that really isn't covered and become the expert on it. Joe's significant areas of expertise have been the shroud, the Nazca lines, ghosts, and document authenticity.

In frequent media contacts, when Joe is asked, "Do you believe in XYZ", he insists the question be rephrased as, "is there enough evidence to believe in XYZ?". He was recently very disappointed that Time magazine descended to having a very one sided review of the shroud. Shroudies have long shopped for experts - simply ignoring experts who admit that "evidence" is most shoddy. Joe offers a number of reasons to be a "doubting Thomas" about the shroud:

In spite of all this, Time magazine in a bout of "mystery mongering" did not even refer to Nickell's authoritative book on the subject. Although Joe maintains that "being a skeptic is a thankless job", he doesn't insult the other side. He attacks the claims of phony miracles, not the religion they are claimed to justify. Joe does maintain good relations with a number of religionists and has been published by "Christian Life" magazine.

In his entertaining and informative presentation to PhACT Joe sited not just shroud information but also investigations of ghosts in Canada (which turned out to be industrial noises next door) - a story of identical twin criminals, spontaneous human combustion, spirit writing and the Nazca lines. In all these cases, Joe gave ample evidence where closer careful investigation proved that the more prosaic explanation (though shunned by miracle mongers) clearly fit the claim. We at Phact appreciate Joe's visit and that he continues what he calls "the most thankless job in the world".

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