This is point of inquiry for Friday, January 21st, 2011.
Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Karen Stollznow point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. My guest this week is skeptical investigator of the paranormal, Joe Nicol. Joe has researched numerous historical, paranormal and forensic myths, mysteries and hoaxes, including hauntings, crop circles, psychic claims, the Shroud of Turin and the purported Diary of Jack the Ripper. Joe was a senior research fellow for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and writes the Investigative Files column for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. He’s the author of many books, such as The Real Life X Files investigating the Paranormal Secrets of the Sideshows and Real or Fake Studies in Authentication.
Joe, welcome to Point of Inquiry.
My pleasure. Good to be with you.
Now, you’re one of the world’s most prominent skeptics. Have you always identified as a skeptic or was there ever a time you were a believer of any kind?
Oh, I was a believer. Wasn’t everybody tooth fairy? My grandmother. My grandmother was something she. She kept me believing in Santa Claus a long time because she would put soot on the on the letters so that they appeared to be coming down the chimney. And.
Yes, she was. She was something I was a religious believer when I was about the fifth grade, I was Bible reader in my church. And it was useful for me because I learned to stand up in front of a crowd and project my voice to the back of a large auditorium and learn the rich cadences of the King James Bible and other good things. I know my Bible pretty well to this day. And so I later abandoned that. But all all good, I think. Always good to have a background and be able to relate to people who have different beliefs. And not just have always been a a skeptic. So it didn’t it didn’t hurt me.
I agree. I think it’s always good to have a perspective from the other side. What about paranormal and pseudo scientific beliefs?
I guess I always was pretty much a skeptic from, you know, once I was out of my childhood and. Even pretty early on, I was a big fan of Whodini, so I was well aware of his crusade in the latter part of his life to look at bogus skeptics and had the blessing of having a father who was site had been a science teacher and was an amateur magician of some skill. And that was very useful for me. We had, of course, books on who’d he and magic tricks, and I loved being tied up with rope and wriggling out.
Now you have a very diverse array of interests, although in your career you’ve had a focus on cryptozoology and UFOs. Psychic claims, forgeries and hauntings. What led you to develop these particular areas of expertize and many other areas?
Miracles and relics and crop circles and so forth. Not limited to Dyson? No. Right. I. I like to think that I pretty much have looked into every area where skepticism is needed.
I’ve done a lot with alternative medicine, for example. I just came back from China where I had acupuncture treatments and cupping treatments and spent some real time in the Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine. So we are cured now. I’d feel pretty good. But. Those needles can hurt. They don’t have to, but they can when they start twisting and probing and hitting nerves.
But to soil myself, it is painful.
Yes, it can be. But I am. I like to think that I’m trying at least to marry my diverse interests, which is in just about everything. Hard for me to think of a topic that doesn’t interest me that I can’t relate to in some way. I’m just. Insatiably curious, wanting to be many people, and at the same time, the areas of pseudo science and the paranormal are pretty diverse as well.
And I try to marry those as best I can. I draw on my magician’s background to spot illusions and particular sleight of hand deceptions by by phone at places like Camp Chesterfield in Indiana. I use forensic science whenever I can. For example, a blood pattern analysis to solve the Atlanta House of Blood Mystery. It was not totally irrelevant for me that when I was looking at the glowing statues at Campbell, Ohio, and realizing they were just the gold leaf on the statues was was shining in the sun or at night, which seemed more impossible from parking lot lights than that, that I had been a guilder. I had done quite a bit of gold leaf application during my years as a sign painter. So almost anywhere I go. I know I probably can draw on some. Some of my background or or something. And of course, if I need an expert, a real scientist or like, I can go get one. But I’m interested, Briley. I would like to think that I address every kind of paranormal and pseudoscientific claim that I’m capable of. Obviously, I wouldn’t have. B is apt to deal with medical issues because I’m not a doctor, but I do deal with a lot of quack medicine.
Well, I think it’s important for skeptics to work in with other skeptics and experts and solicitations. And some skeptics are of the opinion that a topic like alternative medicine should be our biggest concern in skepticism. So out of your areas of expertize and by that I mean your focus on things like hauntings and psychic claims and cryptozoology. So out of those areas, what topics do you think skeptics should be the most concerned about?
Well, I, I think I understand the spirit in which the emphasis on alternative medicine comes from. But I have to say that to to say that’s sort of the most important and we all ought to be interested in that alone is a little, I would think, naïve. Imagine an issue of skeptical Inquirer magazine that was devoted to alternative medicine and then imagine the next issue in the next and the next. And then you would you would see why when we’ve put out a magazine on alternative medicine, it didn’t didn’t do so well.
I think that, yes, it’s an important issue because of health questions, but the public is fascinated by other things for other reasons. And. It would be easily demonstrated that whomever thought he should be. Just devoted to alternative medicine, I think, and set up an office to that effect would find that maybe he didn’t get many TV gigs. The television is just not rife with with alternative medicine shows.
It is, of course, as you know, with with ghosts. All day and night, every night, there are haunting shows, ghost hunters and Medium and and Ghost Whisperer and so forth, ad nauseum. Mm hmm. So the question is, are we going to deal with those issues as well? Mm hmm. And and so I think that we should look at all the issues because they all are important. And we shouldn’t mean by the same thinking that alternative medicine is solely important or the most important. Do we should all go and become doctors, I suppose, or something that’s not really sort of how the world works. That’s why I say it’s naive. If someone thinks that that’s just a burning issue, and I would agree, it is perfectly important issue, that I think they should go do something about it. And if they’re not but just complaining that I’m not doing it. I would just dismiss them and ask them to run alone.
No, I, I would agree that their skepticism is very broad and there are so many areas to cover and all of them are important in their own way.
Yes. And we have to use our own talents. I’ve tried to make the best of my background as a magician. Detective. Scholar. What have you. I’m not a psychologist. I have often wished I were. That’s why I teamed up with the late Robert Baker and who who, by the way, gave me an honorary degree. I mean, I know it’s it’s it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. In fact, it isn’t written on paper. But but I do think it’s a very important issue. If I were a psychologist, I would probably do some different things than that I’m doing. I I have a background in English literature and I. I do a certain amount of linguistic analysis for cases of automatic writing in some other cases, because I have an article coming out in a Future Skeptical Inquirer about a case of. Automatic writing involving Jesus and I use linguistic evidence. So I think that whatever skills we have, we put them to use the best way we can pick the cases we think we can best contribute to. And hope others are picking up the slack elsewhere.
So out of your areas of expertize, what topics do you think skeptics should be the most concerned about? So I’m thinking in terms of maybe psychics who rip off their clients or people who think that their house is haunted and so they seek out paranormal investigators who come in and abuse them.
Well, again, I I guess I’m I’m sort of out there looking at not just what what do I think the most important things are, but where are things a lot of times that come my way and they’re going to come my way and I need to be prepared because I’m going to get from the media a certain array of things, hauntings, to be sure. Questioned yesterday by USA Today, In my capacity as a demonologist, I can’t talk more about that. But, you know, I have to be prepared to deal with what the media is dealing with. I don’t really find it useful for me to say, well, I need to not you know, I’ll turn down all these calls from the media and I’ll I’ll go deal with alternative medicine exclusively. That just doesn’t work for me. And I think that we probably broadly have a lot of people with a lot of expertize and a lot of areas. And so when calls come into a place like Skeptical Inquirer, we can farm them out.
Well, I know you do want to talk about that, your role as a demonologists. I’m curious about that. To me, a demonologist is someone who is a believer, not someone who is necessarily a scholar in just historical aspects and and is more of a skeptic.
Well, there you go. Talking like a linguist. But no, really. Point taken. But I, I used to I used to use terms that way. I used to refer to Cryptozoologist in a sort of disparaging way or ufologists worth or the like. What I realized was that I was often more like some of those people than I was certain types of skeptics. That is to say that skeptics who sit in their armchairs before their computers and have never gone out anywhere, ever and looked for anything and just are dismissive, don’t think I should waste my time going into haunted houses because. Well, there are no ghosts. Mm hmm. Those people I didn’t have I didn’t have much in common with those people. And in fact, often didn’t respect them very much. But on the other hand, the I’ve spent some wonderful time with spiritualists and with Cryptozoologist and others. Talking about things out in the field, actually, you know, on a boat with a cryptozoologist looking for the Lake Okanagan Monster, Ocho Pocho, things like that. So I’ve I’ve finally decided that what I am is that’s fair enough, because I have some expertize you see in the field of ufology is just a skeptical orientation. So I’ve begun now to occasionally say I’m a skeptical ufologist or a skeptical paranormal investigator, paranormal estimate or or or ghost. I’m a ghost buster. I’m a demonologist, I’m a vampire ologist, whatever I mean. I struggled with them hydrologist because. Well, I have a new book coming out called Tracking the Man Beasts. And I and I decided, well, I am a vampire ologist, which you could say, but that means you you you believe. No, it really just I think most dictionary definitions for these things, just one who is studies, that’s theology. Part of the word who studies this phenomenon. And you don’t it doesn’t necessarily inherently mean you’re you have a belief. So you could study the history of demons and belief in demons and the the phenomena that could be mistaken for demon possession and so forth, all of which I do. And I’ve done original work on, you know, exorcisms and so forth. So I would say, yeah, I’m prepared to be a demonologist. I mean, I might say it a little whimsically sometimes or something, but I think, yeah, I, I don’t know what the skeptical version of that is, what the word for it is, other than to say. You know, skeptical demonologists in front of it.
Yeah, I think that’s an excellent idea. And I can see a lot of value in using the same terminology that people who believe use. And I know of another group that use the term paranormal investigators to mean skeptical paranormal investigators are people who investigate paranormal claims. And they have a lot more success with the people that we’re trying to to educate and trying to get a skeptical viewpoint across, too.
Absolutely. And the media is is aware of some of these terms now and is looking for someone in that field. And what do you call yourself? Otherwise, I mean, saying you’re a skeptic. OK, OK. But but what does it mean to be a skeptic? You could be skeptical of anything. You could be a skeptic of the Holocaust. Well, that wouldn’t be appropriate. That’s that’s that’s wrong. So skeptic only takes you so far. And what really upsets me is that the times that the media contacts me and is looking for her debunker. And I that sets my teeth on edge because it they just looking for an all. They think many people think I’m just an all purpose debunker. Pick your topic and I’ll debunk it. No, I actually struggle to to become a detective and to take an investigative approach to things. And I believe we shouldn’t turn set out to debunk. So what do we call ourselves? Well, whenever it’s appropriate, I use paranormal investigator and any other time I may call myself the demonologist. I didn’t. By the way, for. But I. Except privately in my journal.
Well, I do think that’s an excellent idea. And to to also evaluates who it is you’re talking with, whether it’s the media or whether it’s another skeptic and into to reevaluate the terms that you use in an appropriate environment.
Yes. In other words, we can say yes, that is that is a field of study that is a legitimate. It’s OK to study and talk about vampires. Sure. OK, fine. No, no off limits topics for me, really. But if we’re gonna do so, then the word ology suggests a sort of scholarly study. Mm hmm. And if you’re claiming to be a scholarly student of demons who are getting all your information out of the Old Testament or somewhere, I think you’re mistaken in this kind. Yeah. So skeptic, you must be skeptical. Where skepticism is due. But you can be a scholar in a topic and be a skeptical scholar. I think that anyway, I’m I’m trying to sell that idea today.
And I really liked that. And I think perhaps there’s too much emphasis placed on naming and labeling. And sometimes it’s more important to look at the methods that we use and the approach rather than the names we use.
Yes. Can I sign you up then to be the first member of my new cult show, huh?
I’m on it.
Well, I’ll get back to my the questions that I’d initially written. And this is sort of going back to an area that covered a little bit. But what do you think of the opinion of some skeptics who don’t believe that paranormal investigation is an important or necessary part of skepticism? I’ve come across a lot of people who say, why do you hunt for ghosts? These are easily explained away as natural phenomena. This is boring. What do you think of that position?
I do understand it.
Because it happens to be all the time and people come here and. And I can’t tell you the times people have stuck their heads in my office and said, you know, hey, Nicole found any go slightly hahaha. Like I’m on a fool’s errand. I’m wasting my life looking for something that they know doesn’t exist. And I say to them, I say, you know, if the question is just are there ghosts or are there not, then I think you’re I think there are not. And I think you’re right. But I. I tell them I don’t think that’s the question. And they usually look at me like I’m on drugs. And, you know, eventually they’ll ask, well, what is the quote? I said, well, the question is this. I think do many, many people believe in goes, oh, well, yes, they do, but they’re all fools and. Well, no, wait, wait, stop. If they do, then how do we deal with that? I don’t think it gets us very far to just shoot down people and call them stupid and. And hope they’ll go away, they they obviously won’t go away. And belief in in ghosts and other things is is rampant. So what do we do with that? Well, we have to engage the issues. We have to engage the evidence. And the only way to do that, honestly, is to investigate so that we know what we’re talking about. I’ve heard skeptics pop off on topics and they had not a clue because they’d never investigated anything. They just any old half baked answer would do because they’re just debunking and dismissing. So I think. It’s important to investigate so that we seen to be fair and credible, and that while we may not convince the really a lot of fringe people, we’re not going to be convinced. But we there are intelligent people who just simply heard some things or have an experience or something and are looking for reasonable clarification. And we can speak to those people and should and should do it. I completely agree. Also, it seems to me that investigation is is an interesting thing to do for us to do and that there are benefits that the people who dismiss and debunk don’t imagine. I have learned a wealth of things about.
The human tendency and will to believe in the nature of misperception and all manner of things practical and scholarly, that I value having learned. I’m looking in all my life’s work as a as a poet and. Detective of all kinds. I’m looking to understand myself and my world and everything that I do. That’s. That looks into something unusual or challenging or or that other people are feeling very different about teaches me. And I think all of that is valuable and so further. But to make one final point, I think that.
People who have this dismissive, debunking attitude. Now, keep in mind, I’ve been around for 40 years. More than 40 years doing this. I’m much older than 40 even. But but I’ve been doing this for seriously for more than 40 years. And one of the I’ve watched that other type come and go. I’ve watched them over the years drop off. And because they’re not having any fun. They’re increasingly strident and angry and and bored and and tired of this. And eventually they suffer what we call skeptical burnout because they’re they’re not personally interested in anything. I, on the other hand, am so curious, so interested in things. I could do this for two more lifetimes. I’m just getting started. And it’s sad to me that I have ideas that I know I probably won’t get to carry out in this lifetime. So. I think it. I recommend the investigative approach. I think that’s where he if you really you’re seen to investigate. You’re seen to be fair, and it’s it’s the way you learn and it’s the way you can convey information to somebody else is through investigation. If I if I’ve investigated something, then I have some evidence and some facts. And you and I can sit down and try to be dispassionate and and reason together over that evidence. And we will get somewhere, hopefully. Otherwise, just to say, well, you’re too stupid for me to talk to or some response like that is really pitiful that some people do that.
And I’d like to ask you a number of questions about your investigations. So your work often involves recreating supposed evidence of paranormal phenomena. For example, the Shroud of Turin. And I’m wondering, do you think that investigators should try to replicate phenomena like that and to replicate claims rather than trying to go out there and capture new phenomena? So going out to cemeteries at night and during stakeouts and things like that, as opposed to recreating phenomena, what do you think is more important?
Well, I think you have to use whatever technique and tactic is appropriate, and I. Dr. Baker and I wrote a an entire textbook on how to do this called Missing Pieces. And in there we say that we list somewhat tongue in cheek. We list all the qualifications. We think that that good news skeptical investigator should have. Of course, they they heard the qualifications that he and I have. And then then we kind of admit at the end, in other words, you should try to be just like us. Well, a humorous side. I think that we should try to use whatever technique will work. So I. I’m actually trying to use. Strategies for investigation, like I mentioned earlier, blood pattern analysis to solve the Atlanta House of blood mystery or a serological analysis to see if blood on some some surface that’s supposed to be supernatural is in deep blood. Or I’ve done an iconographic study where I’ve looked at the development of an image like how the alien, little, big eyed, big headed humanoid evolved over time. That’s one of your famous ones or the Shroud of Turin, because you can look at the Shroud of Turin and you can you can pretty much from iconographic evidence and date to that image of Jesus, too. To sometime around the Middle Ages, sometime, you know, a century or two before the 14th century when it showed up, it’s clearly would not have appeared centuries before that. So any strategy that I can use, linguistic analysis, I’m using handwriting on this current automatic writing case that I’m doing whatever works. So. With something like the Shroud of Turin, when when when much of the argument is that no artist could possibly. Make a shroud of Turin. I may be willing to take that bait. Now, it is risky because once you try to duplicate something, you will. You will soon realize that nothing can ever be exactly duplicated. You can produce something that looks very much like it and not have all the subtle qualities of something or, you know, so. So you get into sort of inless debates. And that has happened with the Shroud of Turin. But even though that issue has become something of an albatross around my neck, I don’t regret that approach. And I’ve lived long enough to see theories of how the shroud image might have been formed come and go. And many been have been dismissed and mine has stuck around pretty well. And recently, the Italian scientists lead you. Skelley took my basic two of my basic ideas and produced a complete full length shroud image, artificially aged and everything. And it’s really a wonderful accomplishment. Wow. So I think. But of course, if you’re of a mind to say it’s not exactly a Shroud of Turin, you can find some little difference.
And so what do you think, then, of groups that to go out and try to capture new phenomena? So instead of trying to replicate claims, they go out in search of ghosts since taking images of them or recording them? What do you think about that view of paranormal investigation?
Well, if you’re talking about the sort of ghost hunter approach, which I think you are to some extent, going. Going into allegedly haunted places and hoping to actually capture evidence of a ghost. It’s it’s fraught with difficulty because. The people doing it, basically, and I’m trying to be kind, don’t know what they’re doing there. They’re invariably not scientists, but they’re taking scientific equipment, they’re taking thermal imaging devices and electromagnetic field meters and so forth, instruments that have no proven record for detecting ghosts. And and OK, maybe maybe though, that’s not enough of an argument against it. But then they’re using it in ways often that’s not meant to be used. They’re using it in very careless, inappropriate ways. They don’t know when the instruments are giving false readings or acting up. What what the cause of it is, they don’t understand all the kinds of phenomena that will produce these effects. So it’s really it’s really a fool’s errand. They’re collecting garbage. And it’s not evidence of anything. Not any of it would be evidence in any court. It’s not evidence. Certainly before the Court of Science, I have a new blog that talks about the thermal imaging and I less late last year I did. A demonstration of four TV. A TV crew. Some of the ghost hunting techniques we used a lot of the equipment over showed. Kind of a spoof of this world, and we we. Had had a camera, a thermal imaging camera trained at a at a wall where no one was. There was nothing there. But on the camera was just pretty clear image of a human being. You could actually count fingers. Pretty dramatic image. People can see it on my blog. And but in fact, of course, there was something we weren’t telling the viewer, which we confessed to a little later, that someone had just stood there for a couple of minutes and then walked away and we were getting there, their heat signature. It’s that simple. So so you could make a case that many of the ghost hunter types, much of their phenomena, they are producing themselves. Yes. In it, inadvertently, perhaps. But they’re catching thermal images that are one of their buddies was there a couple of moments ago. I mean, these are real cases. I’m thinking of particular incidents you can identify or they’re stirring up dust and getting orbs and photographs or they’re they’re like they’re AMF meters or picking up leakage from their own electronic equipment or or something. I mean, you. And so when they say, did you hear that? Did you hear that? And they don’t know that members of their crew are upstairs. It gets to be a little laughable. Yes. So I. I don’t in general think that that’s any kind of a very useful approach.
Right. So in your opinion, skeptical paranormal investigators should really wait for the evidence to come to them and then to test that rather than to go in search of it?
Well, I mean, if if someone I’ve I’ve been called to haunted houses by troubled families and I’m not against going there and seeing.
You know what? What might be occurring in a place?
But I’m not expecting to find a ghost under those circumstances. So I’m finding it more I’m more in the business, I guess, sort of like a homicide detective. I’m not in the business of creating homicides in the business. You report your homicide to me and I’ll investigate. Though I’ve gone with ghost hunter types and been on stakeouts and stuff. No harm done to us, sort of see what develops. It’s just that this has been done now pretty extensively since what, the nineteen forties or whenever when Harry Price in England first famously had his ghost hunting kit. Buli Rectory. Yes. At Bawley and there there’s a photograph of his ghost hunting kit with all its gadgetry and stuff. And ever since then ghost hunters have been running around. But but I don’t know of any credible evidence. And even if they did get some credible evidence, it’s been made in such careless and inept fashion that it’s probably not even useful, you know. OK, so they’ve got some anomaly on there on their photographic film. They’ve got a blurred spot. Well, unless you knew all the details of exactly what conditions that photo was made under, you would have trouble explaining it. But it wouldn’t be proof of anything.
Well, I think Harry Price’s ghost hunting kit is a good lead to another question. You’ve been investigating the paranormal since 1969. Has anything changed in your investigations and your methods over time?
Sure. I, I think that that there’s constant change. The world is somewhat different. When I first started, for one thing, there were really not much in the way of any kind of procedure about how you go about this sort of thing. Mm hmm. And I’ve I’ve been out trying to invent ways to go do things. You know, how could we investigate this or that? And if people can look at some of my strategies and attempts and see whether they’re, you know, useful to them and maybe they can improve on them or. Correct. Quietly correct my errors. Put. I’ve I’ve learned a few things. My very first case cited I learned my first big case. I learned that how important it is to go on site and and actually be there so you could get. You know, find out what was really happening as opposed to just theorizing from your armchair. And I’ve. I’ve mentioned earlier how I’ve sort of changed my orientation a bit towards now not using the term cryptozoologist as a disparaging term. But kind of adopting it for myself, which is I like to think maybe a little maturity on my part. I think, you know, I I maybe was a little immature here and there in my Whurley career. But I said to some young skeptics not long ago that and I listed several things for them not to do. And finally I thought I’d better say something more. I said, you know, when I tell you you shouldn’t do this or this or this. I I’m saying that because I’ve done all those things and I’m ashamed of some of them. And yes, I’ve shouted people down and I’ve debunked and I’ve jumped to conclusions and I’ve done all the things I’m telling you. You know, please don’t do that. That’s why I know not to do so. It’s not that I’m somehow above this. I’ve just hoped to have gotten better at it by learning sometimes the hard way that you need to be respectful of people, for example, and listen to them. And there were times when I didn’t. And sometimes I mean, it may. Maybe tomorrow somebody will say something to me so rudely that I’ll just reply in kind and that’ll be the end of that. But but when we’re at our best, I think we we know some things about how to proceed at a professional level and.
How to conduct ourselves and how to use a variety of.
Techniques and scientific approaches and scholarly approaches that are available to us and and B, maybe even a little creative. And I’m struggling all the time to find something creative. I think I think investigating can be very creative. You’ve got a puzzle and you think, now, how could I. My goodness, how can I tell if Jesus is guiding woman’s hand, producing that odd handwriting? How can I do that? And I. I found three ways and and I’m using those in my next skeptical Inquirer article. And I think that’s kind of creative, although it always looks obvious once you once you’ve done something, people look at it, think, oh, well, I would’ve thought of that.
Well, I think it’s very important for us to be self-effacing into continually reevaluate our methods and techniques and going back to errors for a second. Ask skeptics are always pointing out the errors that are made by paranormal investigators. And you’ve touched upon a few of these already. But what are some of the mistakes made by skeptical paranormal investigators? We may be too quick to dismiss claims. Yes.
Absolutely. Too quick to dismiss claims, too quick to jump to conclusions. I remember particular case, and I bring it up sometimes at a haunted house where there were supposed to be sounds of antique printing press that was locked in the basement. People would hear it rumbling and clattering and there is no one there. And it turned out that next door and I set this up sometimes when I talked to skeptics, I set it up and I say, you know, but but would anybody be interested in learning that next door was a publishing company? And of course, all the skeptics laugh out loud at health cause the printing presses are in the building next door. Ha ha ha. And then I, I stop and point out that, no, they’re not. It’s just an office building and warehouse. And there were no presses. So I had to look elsewhere for that, for that sound. And then I won’t bother you with that detail. But there was something else that sounded sort of like a printing press. If you used your imagination. And and I, I and I. But I always say to skeptics, when I do that, I say, you have to admit, I gotcha. You jump to a conclusion. They all grand, you know. And and, yeah, you got us. And I say, well, the reason I knew I could do that is because I jumped to that conclusion myself at the time when I found it out. But I but I went and checked it out. And that’s when that’s the difference, is that you really must not only talk the talk, but walk the walk of going to places and learning so that, you know, we’re up. You speak. I mean, the other things, just just being respectful of people, I I’ve seen skeptics just make fun of some poor religious belief or who, you know, had some silly. The thing that some stain or something that they thought was a miracle of Jesus because it looked a little bit like the Virgin Mary in profile or something. And just just make fun of someone. And I do find that generally useful to do that. I’ve been a little ashamed of how some skeptics have have behaved. I would rather say, OK, you know, that person may not be sophisticated. They may not be a genius. They may not be, as you know, scientifically very literate. But they’re that person’s a decent person. They’re just mistaken. They’re just mistaken. And I’ve been mistaken. So the best thing is to try to show what that phenomenon is that, you know, explain how parrot Dolia works, how how a simulacrum can look like something random pattern. But isn’t something and you might ultimately make it look a little foolish to believe something. But that shouldn’t be something you you want to make the person look stupid or make fun of them. And I really have seen that done in ways that made me rather embarrassed. I went to a church once in New York, a Greek Orthodox church had a weeping icon, and they were kind of distiller’s come in and. And I.
Was helped by the local skeptics and they.
They station one person at the door and. And I said, if if you see some pilgrim coming in and they look like they’re heading towards the icon to, you know, people would do things like touch it or whatever for healing. I said, run ahead and warn me. I’ll get out of the way. As if this is their church. It’s not my church. And afterwards, they they were kind enough, the skeptics were kind enough to say, you know, we’ve learned a lot from you about how to do this sort of thing. And we were, frankly, a little ashamed after a bit that we had worn blue jeans. And you didn’t. And I said, well, you know, it’s just a matter of trying to show respect. Just because people are mistaken doesn’t mean they should be made fun of.
I agree. And just moving on with other questions about investigations. Skeptics are familiar with the plethora of local paranormal groups that have arisen and all of the uncritical shows on television. Do you think that anyone and everyone should be able to investigate the paranormal?
Well, I think not. And with with analogy to homicide investigation, we don’t want just anybody out trying to do that. We want people who are savvy. We want people who have some knowledge of. For homicide investigations, some knowledge of forensics. They don’t. The people we have investigate are not themselves scientists. Invariably there there may be someone with the rank of lieutenant. A homicide commander. I’ve known some very good ones. And but they’re they’re really good at solving crimes, though. They’re not themselves scientists. But there’s just no question that that intelligence is an asset. And so some people could go and investigate some pretty obvious and low level puzzles. Some may require genius. And the more of that we have. Along with the course of do amount of modesty and self deprecation, the better off we’ll be, the more we know, the better. We’re trained, the better. We’ll be able to investigate. And the problem with some of these so-called paranormal investigators, the ghost hunter types. It’s not that they’re not decent people or that they’re not intelligent. It’s just that they’re on on an errand to find ghosts and really are out of their element. Right. They’re going about it the wrong way.
And so I I think, though, is as far as skeptics are concerned. Anyone who’s a good skeptic.
Understands the basics of of things can go and do some limited investigations. He may be able to to go to a haunted house and show something effectively. And maybe they can contribute that way. I don’t think everybody will be able to do some kinds of investigations that may require.
Once again, I think it goes back to skeptics working with each other and working with people who have expertize.
Yes, I do think that the homicide detective is a good model in in that not being an expert himself, except just sort of knowing how to investigate and making use of pathologists and fingerprint experts and so forth, and sometimes even having to go get specialists from the university or somewhere to to solve a particular problem. But being just having that good sense of being a detective and knowing when you when you don’t know something and trying to go out and get it. That’s why I think a skeptic doesn’t necessarily himself have to be a scientist or anything. But of course, the background in science and magic and so forth would be very, very useful.
And so you’ve said before that it’s your intention to actually solve mysteries rather than fostering or dismissing mysteries. What should we do when attempts have been made? But we can’t solve a mystery at one point in time. So what should we do with the mystery when we come to a dead end?
Call me, OK? That was that was just left herself open. Yeah, well, you mean what if.
What if you really just don’t have. Well, one of the things I do is, is point out that maybe in a particular case, I mean, I have people tell me their UFO story or something, you know, is nineteen sixty nine and it was Peoria and they were driving and they saw it and so forth. And so what was that Mr. Skeptic. They say and I just say I have no idea. I wasn’t there and I don’t I don’t know what you think you saw. So one of the things is to point out that we don’t have enough evidence in a lot of cases. And the assumption is that if we had better evidence, it probably would be solvable there. Again, by analogy to homicides, there are lots of unsolved homicides and we don’t go infer that it’s a homicide gremlin that’s doing the the work. We know somebody is doing it, and the same is with the paranormal. I think we can make the case that we have no just because we don’t know what the answer is. In a particular case, we shouldn’t infer that it has a paranormal explanation, because to do so is is a logical fallacy called an argument from ignorance. Other words, you can’t say I don’t know what the answer is here, therefore I do know. But people do it all the time that this is most of most of the paranormal is promoted this way. We don’t know how the person how their cancer went into remission. So it must have been the result of the Holy Virgin Mary and the water of Lourdes. But that’s an argument from ignorance. So I think we can.
When we don’t have an answer, we can point out that the evidence is not very good, that we nevertheless have no reason to jump to a paranormal explanation and whatever else may apply in a case that would that we could draw on to show why. Just because we can’t solve a mystery does not does not really mean that there’s anything paranormal.
Oh, yeah. I think some people have a tendency to if they can’t explain something at one point in time to dismiss it or to say it’s inexplicable then to default to paranormal explanations.
But we can come back. This is what is exciting just again. As in as in homicide investigation we now have. DNA, and so that’s starting to clear a lot of cold cases, and we’re we’re getting a surprising number of people out of federal penitentiaries who are innocent based on DNA and new techniques do come along. And I was able to go back on a cold case I mentioned earlier this Atlanta House of Blood case, and I had learned about a forensic science called blood pattern analysis that.
And I knew an expert in the field and we were able to show that the story the couple told about blood’s bounding out of the up from the floor and pouring out of the walls and so forth, that no such thing happened, that it had been flung on to the walls from a point away from the walls and spattered on to it. I had I went to the trouble to get crime scene photographs from the police and take them to an expert and with other evidence showed that this was this case was a hoax. So. New techniques come along that we may be able to go back and solve.
This this fascinates me to take modern data, even just computer historical records that are now some some times more available. You can search history better and go back. Cold cases. I’ve gone back to cases a century or more old. And found that just, you know, the dust has settled in it. It might seem hard to solve a cold case, but sometimes you can take a fresh look at it.
That’s very exciting.
So just two final questions. Some skeptics become jaded or cynical that continually having to disprove or explain the same phenomena. So having to explain things like OBES or spontaneous human combustion. So how do you maintain your interest in patients in these ongoing themes?
I did come in earlier about how a dismissive and debunking approach leads to skeptical burnout, and that put an interest in trying to solve mysteries is intriguing and interesting. And we’ll keep you going. So I would I would repeat that. And I think you just have to be in for the long haul. You have to realize that every few every so many years you have a new generation of young people, for example, to whom this is all new. And you’re going to have to start all over with them. Ours is a never ending battle. We might as well be firemen and say, well, I put out several house fires and I’ve done it long enough and I’m I’m just not going to do it anymore. Just let those buildings burn. Let that wildfire take over that whole little town. No, we we constantly must fight fire and we must constantly fight the fires of superstition so that we were never going to put it out. We’re never going to not have fires and we’re never going to not have paranormal claims. But we can hope that.
We reach a few people and those people are important and may maybe have an influence out of all proportion to a great number of other people. People that that write books and and or engage in critical thinking will have a they may be small in number, but will have a large influence.
So I’m happy to constantly talk about these things because rather than rather than say, oh, woe is me, I’ve been asked about Orb’s again. Oh, oh, oh. What did you know. How boring. How. Oh I’m so put up on how how negative I could be and rather see it as a positive thing and say oh OK. Years. Years. They just threw me a softball.
Here’s something I can easily explain and use positively as a means of explaining what science is about. And I think if we just took a more positive view of things rather than dwell on how bad things are and you and I know they’re terrible, but we could not focus on that and we could focus on. Well, we’ve made some gains. We’ve we’ve, you know, heard from someone who says they they read our book and, my goodness, it changed their lives. Well, that’ll keep you going for a little while.
From what you’ve said. I’d certainly liken it to teaching.
Exactly. It is very much like that. And you you you should focus on what you can do and on the successes and constantly try to be find interesting things yourself. You must in order to keep keep doing this work, you must be happy and want to do it. So I sometimes will just pick a case that I think might be fun or that just intrigues me, not because it’s Earth shatteringly important, but I, I have to be I have to be engaged. And so sometimes I just need to get away from something. I’ve done too much of one thing or something. Oh yes. To a change always. I’m just new. Yeah. Just for me.
Mm hmm. Mm hmm. And just finally, most people know you as a skeptical investigator of the paranormal. However, there’s a different side to you. Well, many different sides to you. Your website lists over 200 persona’s, including some surprising ones like barroom burglar and thief, Kentucky colonel and exile. So my general question is, do you try to infuse skepticism into everything that you do?
That’s interesting question. And maybe I first ought to defend myself by saying I don’t do a lot of barroom brawling anymore. Don’t check out your website. The thief persona is in quotation marks and was when I was an undercover agent, Kentucky colonel.
Of course, I obviously drunk too many mint juleps. I am a real Kentucky colonel, by the way, and exile. I was opposed to the Vietnam War and and lived in exile for eight and a half years until Jimmy Carter pardoned me. Incredible. It but enough about my checkered past. I do bring skepticism to many areas.
I don’t think it applies a whole lot in some, but it might, might, might show up. I’m the same guy. No matter what I’m doing. Really. So when I when I’m a poet, I’m not some. You know, fantasizing idiot. I’m using critical thinking skills as a poet. I’m right now taking blacksmithing lessons.
And as soon as I figure out where skepticism applies there, I’ll I’ll. I can tell you where critical thinking applies. And that is having handled many hot, red hot poker type broad with my bare hands. I not long ago was was heating one particularly hot white hot so I could do what’s called a forged weld.
And I reached over and grabbed the end, as I had so many times, you know. And then of course, if I thought for half a second, all know that that heat is going to come all the way to the end now and be very, very hot. And I got a quite a blister on my finger. Ouch. Not thinking critically. So maybe more critical thinking. Yes. In everything we do.
Mm hmm. Excellent advice. And, Joe, thank you so much. It was a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. You can find out more about Joe Nicole at his Web site Duru Nicole Dot Com, and read about his investigations in Skeptical Inquirer magazine or online at Psychopathy dot org to participate in the online conversation about this show. Please join our discussion forum at point of inquiry dot org. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org.
Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Karen Stollznow.