Joe Nickell – Debunking in Hollywood?

April 06, 2007

The world’s leading paranormal investigator, Joe Nickell is a regular contributor to Skeptical Inquiry science magazine. He is the author or editor of more than twenty books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1983, 1998) and most recently, The Relics of the Christ (2007).

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Nickell debates “debunking” versus open-minded skepticism, and defends himself against the charge that he is a biased anti-paranormalist with an agenda. He also talks about his consulting role in the new Warner Brothers movie, The Reaping, which stars Oscar-winner Hilary Swank as a lapsed Christian dedicated to debunking claims of religious miracles and how her role depended heavily on his books, articles and investigations. Nickell also talks about the role of skepticism in Hollywood more generally.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, April 6th, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe the point of inquiries, the radio show, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood, Washington, D.C. and Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in addition to 14 other cities around the world. Every week on this show, we look at some of the fundamental assumptions of our culture through the lens of scientific naturalism, focusing mostly on three research areas. First, pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, alternative medicine. Third, secularism and religion. The intersection of religion and science in our society. We look at these three research areas by drawing on CFI, his relationship with the leading minds of the day. Some really interesting people, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. This week’s show features Joe Nickell to talk about his consulting role and Warner Brothers new movie, The Reaping. Before you think it’s off topic and not something that really fits on point of inquiry, the movie The Reaping is about miracle claims and about a paranormal investigators experiences debunking such claims. Before we get to Joe Niccol, here’s a word from this week’s sponsor. 

Hi, I’m Barry Carr, executive director of Psych up here at the Center for Inquiry. We’re celebrating our 30th anniversary this year, making the world safe for science and skepticism and dealing with fringe science and paranormal claims. We publish what I think is an essential magazine, The Skeptical Inquirer. This is the magazine for Science and Reason. Subscribing to the Skeptical Inquirer helps us continue to advance science and reason in our society. I am so sure that you love this magazine that I want you to have a complementary issue to see what we’re all about. To get your sample copy. Just call one 800 six three four one six one zero. I mentioned the point of inquiry podcast and ask us for your free copy. We’ll get it right out to you and you can begin and join the Skeptical Inquirer. Thank you. 

This week shows a slight departure from previous episodes of Point of Inquiry. This week, Warner Brothers new movie The Reaping opens and the lead consultant to the film’s star character offers his opinions on the facts. 

The content of the movie working with Hilary Swank. The Academy Award winning actress who plays a character somewhat based on him. While I’m talking about Joe Nicole, who provided supplemental material to accompany the DVD release, the production of The Reaping, which stars Hilary Swank in the role of a lapse. Christian, who’s dedicated to debunking paranormal religious miracle claims, depended heavily on Joe Nichols books, articles, investigations and experiences researching over the past 30 plus years. Extraordinary claims, especially weeping statues, faith, healing, spiritual visions and the like. Joe Nickell is a regular contributor to a skeptical Inquirer Science magazine. He’s the author or coauthor or editor of more than 20 books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin and the Relics of the Christ. 

Joe, welcome back to a point of inquiry. 

Great to be here. I just didn’t know which dress to wear. 

Well, we’ll get to your cross dressing in a moment. As I mentioned in your introduction, Joe, there’s this new major release movie out this week, The Reaping, featuring two time Oscar winner Hilary Swank about paranormal investigations. It’s really, in a way, based on your work somewhat. 

I got a call ages before from a Hollywood moviemaker who was writing a script, and he told me about a bit about the script. And we had a few discussions. He would call up and we would argue he would he would use the word debunker, which, as you know, would just set my teeth on edge because I’ve labored over the years to say, well, much of what I’ve done is it ends in debunking. In fact, it invariably does. But that I don’t set out to debunk in that we should steer between being mystery mongers on the one hand and, you know, dismissals on the other. We should carefully investigate paranormal claims, paranormal, including the supernatural, with a view toward solving them. And of course, this would just it seems to go over everyone’s head except for real skeptics and. 

So in these discussions, you got involved with the movie, hence if Hilary Swank, if her character could be loosely described as being based on you, that’s why you get flak around CFI for being that cross dresser. 


And of course, her one of her award winning movies had featured that her playing a dual role. So Tom Flynn keeps keeps making jokes in the and and hence the point. 

Joe, before we get talking about the movie specifically, let’s talk about this debunking versus investigating notion. You’ve addressed it before in point of inquiry. But I want to talk more right now about you being a paranormal investigator, specifically an investigator of these religious miracle claims. You actually go out and investigate weeping icons, Virgin Mary apparitions, faith healings. You go in the field. You’re not just sitting in a library or in your study or, as I say, in my armchair, in my ivory tower. 

Right. You’re not. And of course, I have spent a good deal of quality time in such places. But you’re out there looking. 

But we must in addition to those places, they’re perfectly respectable to be in a nice armchair and nice library in a nice ivory tower. Lots of valuable work is done there. It’s also good to get out, roll up the shirtsleeves and say, let’s have a look at this. So when I went, for example, to Campbell, Ohio, and there were glowing statues there, well, I had to go there. I’d never heard of blowing statues before. And of course, it turned out that they were shining statues. The gold leaf was shining in the sun. But of course, they also shined at night seeming to disprove that. So I had to go back and. And one thing led to another. It turns out that, of course, they were shining at night from the parking lot, lights and other ambient light. 

But you didn’t start out with an agenda to disprove. 

I had no idea. My agenda is pretty simple. Let’s go. If something’s is getting attention, if it’s getting attention or seems interesting, even if it’s not getting attention, let us go and learn and let us actually investigate and try to explain it. I’m in the explaining business. So if I can explain why the glowing statues are glowing, then any needed debunking will take care of itself. If I can’t explain it, well, that doesn’t of course mean therefore it’s a miracle. People miss that point. And I think the movie The Reaping this, is that a bit as well. 

And we’ll touch on that in a minute. In all your years of investigating these miracle claims, your book, Looking for a Miracle, recounts many of these experiences of yours. Have you ever run across something that increased your faith in God or in miracles? 

I have not. That’s not to say that I can always explain every flying saucer report or something. Because oftentimes I’m not there when something has happened or people are telling stories years later. But to the extent that I’ve been able to be on site and to witness phenomena and to have access to phenomena and to to statues and so forth, actually examine weeping icons or what have you. I’ve never found anything that that made me think it had a supernatural explanation. And the more I do this now 30 some years, the more I’m convinced that we live in a real and a natural world. 

But on that point, Joe, doesn’t that kind of show that you’re biased if you’re not a debunker, at least you’re a naturalist going out there advancing your naturalism? Millions of people, hundreds of millions of people maybe around the world believe their religions because of these miracle claims, whether it’s Muja Gorie or Lourdes weeping statues. Pope John Paul may become a saint because of a nun praying to him and reportedly being healed of her Parkinson’s. So all of this is a matter of faith. People’s their faith and their religion is shored up by these miracle claims. So what right do you have to go out there being a scientist, if not debunking? Fine, you’re not debunking, but you’re going out there and showing non faith based explanations for these central beliefs people have. 

Well, faith, of course, is not an explanation, and nor is it a tool to explain something. It’s one could have faith in anything. One could believe in anything. No one could one could believe in leprechauns. And of course, no one can prove there are no leprechauns can’t be done. So that’s one way of ordering reality. But a better way is to use the scientific method, which is empirical, which looks for evidence, doesn’t get ahead of the evidence, except in the sense of making hypotheses or something can be tested and allows the evidence to lead where it will. 

And I are open to a miracle. You’re open to the possibility. 

Absolutely. Obviously, if if I could using the best tools in hand, find that science was wrong in some area, then absolutely we would need to correct. Science of posthaste, the the thing about science is that it is. It does have a self-correcting aspect, as you and our speaking sciences, modifying, changing, saying, well, we used to think this gets a little better information. Now, we’re not so sure about this. It’s fine tuning all the time. Dogmas don’t fine tune. They don’t change. They’re they’re entrenched. And so something like astrology, you say, is pretty much set in stone. And so I think the means of science is the method because of its subjectivity, its its attempt to be fair, impartial, to get replicability. That is sort of second opinion. Have someone else tried and see if they get the same results and so forth. These are tried and true methods for getting at the truth. That’s why, fortunately, we use them in a court of law. When someone’s being perhaps sought or charged eventually with murder, there’s a very serious matter. We use the methods of science to determine that or the methods of evidence. You look at Evan. That’s right. And we don’t just say, well, you know, I just have this deep faith that that you’re a serial killer. Sorry. We’ll put you to death. That has been done in the past. I think we’ve we’ve learned not to do that. 

So you are not debunking you’re giving all of these claims their due? I remember one of these investigations when I came along with you at a Greek Orthodox Church in Ohio. You didn’t go there to try to disprove them about their weeping icons or whatever it was. You just wanted to look at the evidence. And you I remember the lecture that you gave me on the ride out there about being open minded about these claims. So it’s I just wanted to give you an opportunity to respond to that charge that you’re you and other skeptics are closed minded debunkers. 

Right. I think, you know, anybody that’s that knows me or has read my books, whatever else they may say about me, can’t say that I’m a closed minded debunker because I would indeed be found only in my arms in ivory tower that that I do go out. I do look at the evidence. I absolutely test it. I’ve done many cases of taking evidence to a laboratory, bringing in an expert consulting, doing experiments, hands on whenever possible with a view towards actually investigating, actually explaining the phenomenon in question. 

So let’s talk about the movie The Reaping. You began getting into how you got involved with the movie as a consultant, right? 

That’s the scriptwriter James Cox would would call me. And when he was the original scriptwriter, courses often happens. Scriptwriters come and go and and don’t always do the final scripting. But and I don’t know what all went on there, but he and I had had talked. And when I found out that they were planning, as I suspected, that at the end of the movie, they the protagonist would regain his or her faith. Then I guess I remember saying you might as well ask me to stick my foot out and put a bullet through it. As far as this helping me in my career, here I am laboring, you know, not not to be cast as a debunker and not to be undermined and to believe that this method of investigating is the proper method. And what you’re going to do is let me go along a certain way and then pull the rug out from under me right at the edge of the cliff and watch me flail away and so forth. 

Do you think movies like this increased credulity in our society, or do people realize it’s just entertainment? You think maybe a movie like this? Could it possibly even help advance skepticism since at least this movie got you involved as the world’s leading paranormal investigator? What are your thoughts? 

I have decided to be philosophical about this. You know, our executive director, Barry Carr, I call it the car doctrine. You know, it’s it’s sort of speller names, right? Go out there and do your best. 

And because in my early years before I was actually employed by the center and totally free agent. And I remember a time or two telling some TV show that was just so totally biased. 

No one in his right mind wanted anything to do with it cause you weren’t going to get a fair shake. And I remember telling him that I would. I said the ones that show once that I’ll be on your show when I die and you contact my spirit at, say, unstable with a medium, something like that. And I told Barry about it later. He’s. Oh, always. Please don’t do that, you know. 

We backed off from that hard line position. You think that any press is good for the movement? 

In general, I mean, there still would be times when I just would say I’m just sorry. That’s not well, what I do or what we would do for some ethical reason. Like I’ve been invited to go on an. Pretend to be a a spirit medium myself and give readings, I don’t think that’s ethical to do that. So I do occasionally decline something. But. I do think in general, when you can, you should go and make the best effort. Maybe maybe you’ll get a word in edgewise. Maybe you’ll get a sound bite and maybe somebody will listen to you better. Berry would say a little skepticism than none at all. 

And you were involved in not only consulting with the movie, but in some of the other materials that are going to be on the DVD. You were interviewed. And you write contributing that skeptical point of view in the whole product as time went on. 

Of course, I’d not having heard back from from the scriptwriter. I didn’t know that the project had any life and I practically forgotten about it. And Berry, let me know about some emails he was receiving. From producer. They were ordering copies of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and Berry asked them what they were up to and they said they were making this movie with Hilary Swank and so forth. And Berry said, well, maybe they ought to take a look at my book, Looking for a Miracle, because it had, for example, been featured in the middle of the movie Stig Botto, which which I found just very odd. 

To go see a movie and look up sort of full size on the screen is a copy of your book carefully panned across just so your name at the bottom is just left off, you know, and admiring that technique. And they said, oh, we we have Joe’s book. 

We have copies, several copies of it. And Hillary has won. And, you know, we’re we’re reading the book. So it was amusing to me to see a clip that her character eventually has a book not like mine. And in the movie, the book is called Challenging Miracles, taking a page from your book. 

So you actually consulted with and met Hilary Swank? 

Yes. The next thing that happened after after Berry’s exchange of e-mails and so forth was that I was invited by Lawrence Elman, who’s a moviemaker in his own right. And he’d been contracted, I guess, to do the DVD materials for the materials to go with the movie when the DVD comes out. And so I was brought down to St. Francis, Phil, Louisiana, a place I knew because I had spent the night for the Discovery Channel in the haunted Myrtle’s plantation mansion. And once again, of course, ghosts don’t like me. They left as soon as they saw me come in the front door, they they scooted out the back. And I couldn’t could not find the ghost. You didn’t have the right energy, right? Apparently, that’s that’s so. So I was there was on, you know, saw the sets. They had these faux buildings made for the movie. And then they had a compound that they had rented, you know, a chain link fence all around, big compound with huge amount of parking area and buildings, vacant buildings. And they used one of those for some movie making. They had one smaller building set up for as a cafeteria. They put but very good food out. If you’ve ever been anywhere near any movie set, they just do a wonderful job under the most difficult circumstances of making sure. But he gets good, good food and lots of it and vehicles parked everywhere, you know, mobile dressing rooms and mobile bathrooms and mobile this and that, units all over the place and security to get in. But I went in with Lawrence Olman and had my dinner there, watched some of the film making and met the various director and so forth. And one of the associate producers or producers said to me, oh, you’re the guy that that Hillary’s character is based on. And I think that’s saying a little bit too much. Obviously, they often speak of skeptical car magazine and speak of us in the plural. 

But but Hillary has referred to me not by name, but just as there’s this guy who travels around the world to raise Bunch and she says she was on TV doing the, you know, the promo for the movie. 

And she’s talking about skeptical Inquirer magazine. And this guy who goes around doing what her character does in the movie, meaning you you’re like, yes. 

So I certainly I’m I’m a model and maybe the most prominent one, as far as I know, I’m the only one that was invited down to meet her and was on the set and so forth. She’s very charming and engaging person and and, of course, very bright and full of mischief and so forth. 

You tell this funny story how she she tried to get you to kind of believe in the miraculous when you met her or shortly after she tricked the trickster, is what she did. 

I have a business card that’s a wood nickel. So I give it out to people. I usually take it back and do a few coin tricks. I show that has four sides which eye catching little effect and so forth. Anyway, I had I had given her one and then I guess I guess we were interrupted or something anyway. So I got another one to do the tricks with. And when I got through, as I usually do, I’m now giving the person the coin. Why. So she ends up and if this is clear with two. 

With two she has hours. I had already given her one but I give her back. Hers actually was a new one. You know, she’s sharp and so she, you know, she caught that right away. And then so she had one in each hand now and she does this little, you know, which she gets here and then no, now it’s it’s here and so forth. And then very slyly, very, very sneakily and slyly, she slips the one back to her, her the back pocket of her jeans. So it was funny. And then as we were well, we discussed our respective philosophies. And we’re obviously she’s more spiritual. I’m more a scientific rationalist. But your guest is. She’s not religious. Does she? I think she would say that. I think she. You know, I don’t want to speak for her. She’ll have to speak for her own views. 

But but my understanding is she should be someone who would say she was spiritual, not religious, that she and she’s up to some extent. You know, she values the scientific method and and thinks that we ought to question reality and look at things. She said this in her interviews recently. 

She’s talking about scientists going out and looking at these claims. And someone, I think Conan O’Brien or someone asked her, do you think they ever get stumped? Or is there always a scientific explanation? And she said, oh, no, there’s always a scientific explanation. She actually said that I was. I was surprised. Maybe your influence. Who knows? 

Maybe. But I had a very nice meeting with her. We spent a few minutes and talked and so forth. And then as as we left to she with her little growing entourage of production people, something they were going off yo, maybe for dinner or something. And she went out one door and learned Soman and I went out another door. But as as luck would have it, the walkways took us, funneled us back to the same stairway. So when she sees me coming, it was she did this great gesture, you know, like and said coincidence, you know, teasing me about about my work. 

And but she’s she’s certainly a real character, a real person and someone, you know, who who can handle herself. And that’s in contrast to this very Make-Believe Hollywood world. I was interviewed by Lawrence Selman for a DVD. Now, of course, I haven’t seen the final editing. It’s always possible that they will listen to point of inquiry and decide that maybe they need to take me off this and they’ve had enough of my negativity. But but I have seen a rough cut of that. And so it looked pretty good to me because there’d been some time since I had done that taping and I saw myself fresh and I thought, well, that’s I said what I wanted to say. 

You think the whole group there on set, all these people involved with this movie, it’s a major Hollywood release about the paranormal, the supernatural, these miracle claims. Do you think they were they open to having a skeptic on the set or was it just, you know, one or two people who were, you know, doing, you know, giving their props to skepticism by having the token skeptic on? I mean, the movie doesn’t end up being very skeptical. That’s the point. It’s a supernatural thriller. It doesn’t go inwards. 

I mean, the skepticism, I don’t think I threatened anybody by being on the set or anything. But, you know, it’s clearly Hollywood is is just can’t stand skepticism. It just it just will go at the earliest opportunity to fantasy and and fluff and and happy talk and so forth at some point. 

I mean, basically, this movie is about a paranormal investigator like yourself who goes out and challenges these miracle claims and then finds some things she can’t explain and becomes a true believer. You know, that’s about as far from your personal experience as you can write in a script. 

Yes. I mean, that’s not happened to me and I’m not expecting it to happen. But of course, it’s imaginable. You could imagine that it would happen in Hollywood just given you just given any excuse to go there will head right. Right in that direction. I think the one thing I would have said to them if I could have gotten to them after they were already, you know, into doing it and thought I could convince them, of course I couldn’t. They obviously that’s the way they feel. They have to make the movie and make it so. But I would have said. Merely saying that because you can’t explain it, therefore it’s a miracle is of course a logical fallacy. We’ve talked about this. It’s logical fallacy called argument timid and him as arguing immigrants. You cannot say I don’t know why the person’s disease went away and then say, therefore, I do know why there was intervention by God. No, if you don’t know, you don’t know. And it’s a logical fallacy called arguing from ignorance to say and it’s done in all the paranormal. This is characteristic of the paranormal. Across the board, I don’t know what the bright lights in the sky were. Therefore, there were UFOs or not. The implication being there, flying saucers from another planet. I don’t know what the noises were in the old house. Therefore, ghostly activity and so forth. 

That’s something that strikes me about you as a skeptic as opposed to being a debunker. A debunker says I do know it can’t possibly be X, but a skeptic says, I don’t know and I’m fine with that. 

The skeptic at least says I don’t exactly know the explanation. I’m going to try to find out. And I think that’s really, really important because saying that that house can’t be haunted because there can’t be haunted houses is just you know, you’re just doing the same thing that the true believers do. You’re just saying it’s a it’s a proven point and so forth. I think the debunkers probably closer to the truth because of all the studies that have been done to date. We haven’t found anything. So if you were betting, you’re just the odds are better for you. But it’s it still smacks of dogma. It doesn’t convince anyone other than the ones they were already in the choir. It doesn’t appeal to anybody else, whereas an open mind is as well. I’ll go there and take a look. Okay. You found something absolutely different. A new and fresh and astonishing. I’ll take a look at it. Why not? Who’s afraid of taking a look? 

You’re saying the open minded skeptic should go out there, not have a knee jerk rejection of the claim that’s still out there? 

And, look, I feel strongly about this. And so I just never use that term debunk or never want to be a categorical dismissal, though I will say, you know, broadly, I don’t find ghosts. They leave when I come in. And so when I say that and that’s true. That’s 30 years. Speaking of of the truth. But I will go the next time because I if somebody says to me, okay, they’re glowing statues in Campbell, Ohio, what’s causing that? I honestly had no idea what that was. I’d never heard of of glowing statues. And I thought, well, at least this will be interesting. And science is is well served by looking into things. Maybe we’ll find something new, some new illusion or some something or the supernatural. Maybe you’ll. And they absolutely claim proven true. Absolutely. That could be. And that’s an option. And who would be against it? I mean, if we’re voting, if we were voting, I’d be for extraterrestrial life and survival of death and so forth. I’m not philosophically opposed to to wanting these things to be true. I just think that that the evidence for them is very, very poor and that it’s basically supported by wishful thinking. 

Joe, to finish up, if someone goes sees the reaping. They they leave the movie and they believe in miracle claims a little bit more as a result. What do you have to say to them? 

I’m really sorry that I did that. I didn’t wrestle the cameraman to the correct and be more effective. No, I tried, you know, but but Hollywood just can’t can’t do otherwise. 

What I tried to do was to say to at least make my position clear, to hope that some part of that got got on the movie. And I’m heading off to see the movie for the first time in full. I’ve just seen clips. So I’m I’m hoping for the best that that I looked like a total close minded fascist of some kind is out there throttling the poor believers in something religious, which which is of course, I am not doing that. I have labored and been very a very sympathetic listener to people who’ve had experiences, very kind to to them, unkind to hoaxers and fraud artists and so forth. Yes, true. True. Been very unkind to some people. But but the sincere percipient all of us can remember a time even from our childhood or sometime in which we were believers and in something and we deserved decent treatment. And I try to always uphold that. So I’m hoping for the best. And when the DVD comes out, I’m hoping that my comments. Okay, here’s a here’s a guy who was, you know, behind the scenes that actually does this sort of thing and. He’s saying these things, and I’m hoping that that message will get out at that point. Who knows? And there is one other thing happening. I do want to say much about it. But Lawrence Ellman is also producing a documentary ostensibly for Warner Brothers, hasn’t been, to my knowledge, yet approved and so forth. But we have actually done the work. So so let’s hope and I can I can tell you it’s on the the biblical plagues. And the movie The Reaping is actually a revisiting of the plagues on Louisiana town. So they ask me, as an investigator investigates miracles, why don’t you look into the actual biblical plagues that the movie is based on? And I said, well, that’s a big undertaking we would need, you know, biblical scholars and scientists and so forth. We have to look at all this. And I can’t tell you anymore. Well, I can tell you that I’d have to kill you. 

Joe, thanks for being on the show. Skeptics out there should be wagging their lucky charms or their rabbits feet so that this documentary gets produced to be interesting to see it. And I also want to let our listeners know that Joe Nichols new book, Relics of the Christ, which recounts Joe’s experiences looking at pieces of the true cross or the Shroud of Turin or the Holy Grail, other similar claims that’s available through our Web site, point of inquiry dot org. Thank you, Joe. Thank you. 

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Contributors today’s show include Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.