Joe Nickell, One of the Most Interesting Skeptics in the World

I’m fortunate to work at the Center for Inquiry, an anti-fantasy land committed to advancing science, secularism, and skepticism, where attending conferences like Dragon*Con or The Amaz!ng Meeting is considered “work.”

I get to go into the office each day and interact with some of the leading figures in a movement I care deeply about. We have casual conversations such as, “Hey, I picked this up off the printer, but I think it’s yours,” “Can I borrow your stapler for a minute?”, and, “Did you hear whether Neil DeGrasse Tyson is stopping by CFI later this week? If so, I’ll reschedule my dentist appointment.” (Seriously. That happened. One time I opened the door for a visitor, and it turned out to be Steven Pinker, so I gave him a building tour.)

Joe Nickell is a coworker I see nearly every day, so I sometimes forget the fact that he’s ridiculously awesome.Sure, he gets sent all over the world to do investigations, and I’m aware that he pops up on TV to deliver skeptical perspectives on ghosties or crystal skulls or crop circles or UFOs. But when I run into him in the hallway, we don’t generally drop what we’re doing to have a conversation about Nazca lines or spontaneous human combustion, although that has also happened too. (Give that man five minutes, and he’ll give you 20 minutes of stories.)

Created by my Facebook pal Robert Bevins

So it was cool to see that the cover story in last week’s issue of Artvoice, the local alt-weekly paper, was a profile piece on CFI’s resident paranormal investigator and world-class skeptic. The online version even has audio recordings with Joe sharing tales of investigating the Flatwoods Monster, Toronto’s Mackenzie House, and UFOs over Buffalo. Heck, I’ve worked with Joe for six years, but I learned a lot about him. Here’s their initial description:

Nickell, 67, is a spirited sleuth with a frank demeanor and a crown of thinning gray hair. A pronounced arch in his eyebrows conveys curiosity. Discerning eyes behold the world from behind wire-framed glasses.

Since 1995, Nickell has investigated all manner of exotic happenings as the staff detective of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), a rationalist group in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst, N.Y.

He may be the only professional of his kind in the world, salaried by a reputable organization to travel the planet on the trail of monsters, mystics and miracles.

The article delves into some of Joe’s many, many, many “personas,” including these favorites:

From Blackjack Dealer; Croupier. I love these pictures.

Past vocations and avocations include blackjack dealer, map illustrator, balloon sculptor, newspaper stringer, bear-catcher’s sidekick and bodyguard.

He is practiced in the art of forgery. Once, many years ago, he managed a riverboat.

In comparison, here are some of the skills I picked up from previous occupations: mopping floors, grooming small dogs, bending photocopiers to my will, and throwing pizzas. The list is not nearly as interesting.

Joe, the young magician

As a former magician, I was glad to see the article get into some of the connections between magic and skepticism:

Magic, like detective work, was an art of observation, so the choice of pastimes made sense. Nickell devoted himself fanatically to each, and through them, learned a pair of valuable truths.

First, he came to understand that there is more to the world than what we see, that even the sanest mind can be deceived. Secondly, he discovered that it was possible to get to the bottom of things—to unveil the trick behind an illusion, or to reconstruct a crime scene with clues.

These maxims would stay with him for the rest of his life. They would fuel his infatuation with mystery, but they would also make him a gentler investigator.

That touches on one of Joe’s guiding principles, fleshed out later:

He considers himself a humanist, which he defines as “an atheist with a heart.” He despises fakes and frauds, but in general, he believes in a kinder brand of skepticism—one that doesn’t spurn all believers as hoaxers and dolts.

If you’ve had the chance to catch one of his presentations, you may have noticed how harsh his words can be for charlatans, TV psychics, or anyone who’s willing to use supernatural and paranormal claims to manipulate emotions and scam people out of money. On the other hand, he has deep levels of sympathy for those who honestly believe they’ve had a paranormal experience, as well as for those who may have been duped by “snake-oil” claims. They’re not “stupid”; they’re just mistaken or ill-informed. Maybe we should call that “The Nickell Principle”? It’s an attitude I think skeptics should have most of the time, because we can all be fooled.

You know, I tried for a few days to think of captions for Joe Nickell-based meme images for this article—I even asked on Facebook!—but there weren’t many zingers. I’ll share some of the ideas in the comments; I also look forward to seeing your suggestions.


Debbie is keenly interested in secularism, skepticism, magic and deception, LGBTQ issues, language and perception, and general geekery. She works at the Center for Inquiry as director of outreach, director of African Americans for Humanism, and intro-doer for Point of Inquiry. You can find her on Twitter: @debgod.

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  1. DebGod,

    I like Joe Nickel and his organization, the Center for Inquiry. I take it this story was inspired by those “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” Commercials?

    By they way, I shared this story with my followers on twitter. You did a very good job writing it!

    1. @criticaldragon1177, you got it. Joe’s done so many interesting and different things over the course of his life, I figured it was a fitting theme. He’s full of great stories. :)

  2. I remember when Joe Nickell came and spoke to our local skeptics group several years ago. It was definitely a highlight, and I am so glad I got to hear him.

  3. I love Nickell simply because he’s one of the most prolific and engaging writers for magic and skepticism I’ve ever seen. I picked up a history of magic he did for kids at the local library; my son loved it. I enjoyed every word of his history of carnival sideshows (though some of it made me cringe). I’m enthralled by every interview I hear with him; it’s rare to find someone so consistently interesting and talented.

    I also like that he really investigates when he delves into a mystery. Sure, the answer has always been “not magic”, but you can’t say Joe Nickell doesn’t give magic a fair hearing.

  4. That man practically hypnotized a group of us standing around him in a circle at NECSS.

  5. Love those pics. Was he the lead singer in Three Dog Night also? COLLA!! When is he going to get a show on Discovery or on the “Crap we made up” History Channel? I would love to see one of their hysterical shows redone with Joe picking it apart and recreating what probably really happened. The Skeptic Perspective, too highbrow?

  6. I had the absolute pleasure of guiding Joe around Loch Ness and Lake Windermere in the hunt for Lake Monsters in March.

    Joe is one of the most decent skeptical researchers I have had the pleasure of meeting. He is so gracious, kind, understanding and yet has a way of being to the point too, in a manner that doesn’t turn people off from the conversation.

    No investigation I do, ever, will match that week I spent with Joe. I don’t think words can do justice to just how brilliant an investigator he is.

    I learnt so much from him. If there’s one thing people should do when they meet Joe, it is listen to him.

  7. Folks,

    Did nobody else spot this ?

    Maybe I’m over reacting but …..
    From the article: “A pronounced arch in his eyebrows conveys curiosity.” I’d kind of put “eyebrows = personality” with “bumps on head = personality” and “lines on hand = personality” and “division into 1 of 12 groups of people divided by date of birth = personality”.

    OK maybe an editors change to the article made a one-time-event sound like a permanent situation that marked personality. It’s just on reading this post that line smacked me right in the face and made me smile.

    But smiling about it is a far as it goes because I definitely subscribe to the sentiment of the article and the way the Joe goes about his skepticism.

  8. Hayley wrote

    Joe is one of the most decent skeptical researchers I have had the pleasure of meeting.

    Joe is one of the most decent human beings I have had the pleasure of meeting.

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