An Interview With Joe Nickell, Author of "The Science of Miracles"

Prometheus Books just released an interview with Joe Nickell about his new book, The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible.It's a book I wrote a blurb for and recommend highly. Here is their interview:

How do those faith healers on TV cure people just by touching them? Is the Shroud of Turin really the burial cloth of Jesus, created in a miraculous burst of energy at the Resurrection? When we encounter an unexplained event or artifact, does this mean we've experienced a miracle? Joe Nickell has been investigating the paranormal from a scientific viewpoint for over forty years-in fact, he's the world's only full-time, professional, science-based paranormal investigator. In his newest book The Science of Miracles, Nickell uses on-site examinations, lab experiments, and other detective methods to uncover the truth behind the most incredible claims.

The Promethean spoke with Joe Nickell about his methods, experience, and newest book.

The Promethean: Everyone has his or her own definition of a miracle. What's yours?

JOE NICKELL: It's hard to define that which appears not to exist. A miracle is generally understood to be an occurrence beyond the known laws of nature. The evidence is invariably not positive but negative: if some allegedly wondrous occurrence cannot be explained by science, it is popularly held to be miraculous. However, such an assertion-"we don't know, therefore we do know"-is an example of faulty logic called an argument from ignorance. Yet it is the method of promoting most paranormal claims-hence, the use of such terms as "unexplained," "unknown," and the like.

In fact, most "miracle" claims that are touted as "unexplainable" are only unexplained, and that is typically because of a lack of evidence (the event may have happened at a remote time and place) or due to lack of access (permission to examine or test an object may be withheld). When we realize that the burden of proof is actually with the claimant, and not on someone else to disprove a claim, we understand therefore that countless alleged miracles are most honestly characterized not as unexplainable but as unsubstantiated. When there is sufficient verifiable evidence, most claims are explainable.

The Promethean: It seems there's been a resurgent interest in the paranormal over the last few years. What separates you from those "paranormal investigators" on TV?

JOE NICKELL: In a word, science. Typical "ghost hunters" and other self-styled "paranormal investigators" are not investigators at all but rather mystery mongers. They start with an unexplained noise or other occurrence, such as a glitch in a photo, and proceed to an argument from ignorance. "We can't figure out what caused that, so it must've been a ghost," they opine. They may misuse an assortment of dubious equipment to obtain more glitches and so claim more alleged evidence for invisible beings or paranormal "energy." However, we have a term for that which looks superficially like science but is fundamentally not science: it is called pseudoscience.

The scientific approach does not begin with adopting a desired belief and then working backward to the evidence, picking and choosing. Instead, it starts with a search for the best evidence, letting it then lead to the best-most likely-explanation. In its self-correcting aspect, science may refine or change an explanation when better evidence warrants.

The Promethean: In the book, you talk about events ranging as far back as Jesus's transformation of water into wine. How can you investigate something so ancient?

JOE NICKELL: Obviously, such an old tale is essentially unverifiable, but we can at least look at the account and its context to see what can be made of it. And there is a simple explanation: Only John's gospel contains the "miracle" tale, while the other three gospels relate the Parable of New Wine, telling how John the Baptist's "wine" (teaching) was old, suited to old bottles, while Jesus' was new and required new bottles. John has simply followed that tradition, having Jesus transform the "water" of Judaism into the new "wine" of his teaching-a parable become miracle. While such ancient claims may be difficult to investigate, they are even more difficult to substantiate, and the burden is always on the claimant.

The Promethean: Surely, there's no shortage of miraculous claims. How do you choose which to investigate?

JOE NICKELL: Some simply come my way. For example, when Lilian Bernas appeared in nearby Niagara Falls to exhibit her bleeding wounds, the alleged stigmata of Christ, I was able to meet her, shake her bloody hand, and get a good look at the phenomenon-a rare opportunity. When I was invited to a science fair in Genoa, Italy, I naturally looked to see what I could investigate in the area: the holy mandylion (said to be Christ's miraculous self-portrait) and the Emerald Grail (one of several candidates for the Holy Grail), among others. My travels around the world have often allowed similar opportunities.

Some investigations are made possible by the media, especially television shows, which can help me gain access as well as pay for expenses. As examples, I had a day's custody of the famous "Grilled Cheese Madonna" for the Penn and Teller: Bullshit! series on Showtime, and I examined a statue with reputed "heartbeats" for an Atlanta television station.

Some reputed miracles present themselves so publicly they demand attention (the squeaking miracle claim getting the investigative grease-so to speak). The "Shroud" of Turin, touted as the burial linen of Jesus, is a prime example. Proponents suggest the image on the cloth may be a sort of "photo" produced by a miraculous burst of radiant energy at the moment of Christ's resurrection-a notion repeated about as often as the media needs an obligatory Easter story. Of course believers are undeterred by evidence: the shroud's lack of historical record before the mid-fourteenth century; a bishop's report that an artist confessed it was his handiwork; the cloth's radiocarbon dating to ca. 1260-1390; the suspiciously still-red "blood" failing forensic tests, and being identified as red ocher and vermilion tempera paint; and scores of other damning facts.

At times, I look into a reputed miracle or other paranormal claim simply because it intrigues me. For instance, while familiar with various "weeping," "bleeding," and other animated effigies, in 2003 I learned of a pair of "glowing" statues that represented something new. After packing my glowing-statue kit, I was off to Campbell, Ohio, in quest of a solution that proved to be as simple as it was unique. Again, despite having investigated dozens of cases of supposed "spontaneous human combustion," I found one "cold case" (in Chorley, England, in 1980) that invited a forensic reconstruction. Far from being due either to "the visitation of God" or the legendary "Hell's fire," the death had an obvious-if gruesome-solution.

The Promethean: Any suggestions on how the average person can look more critically at these claims?

JOE NICKELL: Not everyone has the luxury of being able to devote time to investigating "miraculous" occurrences. Of course, arming oneself with The Science of Miracles will help ward off much superstitious nonsense, and its case studies will provide models for examining other, similar claims. Beyond that, some old skeptical maxims are useful, like "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." This simply means that evidence must be proportional to a given claim. Another maxim advises that, before trying to explain something, one should make sure it really occurred.

Sometimes there are multiple possible explanations, whereupon the principle of Occam's razor applies (named for the fourteenth-century philosopher William of Ockham). It holds that the simplest tenable explanation-the one requiring the fewest assumptions-is to be preferred. To date, science has not required a supernatural explanation for anything.



Joe Nickell (Amherst, NY) has been called "the modern Sherlock Holmes" and "the real-life Scully" (from The X Files). Since 1995 he has been the world's only full-time, professional, science-based paranormal investigator. His careful, often-innovative investigations have won him international respect in a field charged with controversy. He is the author of numerous books, including most recently The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible, and The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead. See for more.