Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP)
From The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Edited by Gordon Stein, PhD, Prometheus Books, Amherst New York, 1996. 859 pp., hardcover. [Entry was printed on pages 168-180]
This is the text by Kendrick Frazier of an invited 8,400-word history of CSICOP through its first two decades. It was published, with no substantive changes and only a few added references, in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal (1996).
The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, better known by its acronym CSICOP, is an independent nonprofit organization that evaluates paranormal and fringe-science claims from a scientific viewpoint and attempts to provide the public and scholars with scientifically reliable information about them. It also encourages an appreciation of scientific thinking and the application of science and reason to important public issues.
It does these things mainly through its international journal the Skeptical Inquirer and its annual academic conferences. Both address a wide range of claims and issues about the paranormal. In recent years CSICOP also has sponsored a series of workshops throughout the United States that offer tutorials on critical thinking and techniques for evaluating paranormal claims. It publishes a newsletter, Skeptical Briefs. And it serves as an important resource to news media seeking scientific perspective on claims and issues involving the paranormal, fringe-sciences, and pseudoscience.
CSICOP has been chaired since its inception in 1976 by Paul Kurtz, professor of philosophy (now emeritus) at the State University of New York at Buffalo. It is located across from the Amherst, N.Y., campus of the university.
In the years since then it has been a highly visible and at times outspoken force for questioning and investigating unexamined claims about allegedly paranormal matters. It has published thousands of pages of critiques of claims. It has strongly criticized those who promulgate them uncritically. It has encouraged and published discussions of the philosophical, psychological, social, cultural, and educational issues revolving around widespread belief in the paranormal and the ready acceptance of paranormal and fringe-science claims. It has sought to encourage an understanding that science involves the most creative and clever methods for uncovering new facts about nature and an openness to all new ideas while at the same time subjecting them to the most stringent examination and criticism before they can receive even tentative acceptance. It has asked news media to be more balanced in its coverage about paranormal matters, and it has honored and awarded those scholars and journalists who, in its judgment, have treated these issues fairly, scientifically, and responsibly. It has also found itself engaged in several prominent controversies and at least one extended legal battle. And CSICOP itself has been the focus of almost continual criticism from both proponents of the paranormal and others who have variously disagreed or agreed with its goals but found its methods or tactics not to their liking.
The claims evaluated have ranged from the personal claims of self-proclaimed “psychics” that they have incredible powers of clairvoyance, psychokinesis, or precognition to the more cautious assertions of laboratory statistical evidence of ESP put forth by experimental parapsychologists; from astrology in its simplest popular form (newspaper horoscopes) to its most arcane and technically tailored computer-age manifestations; all kinds of other alleged divinations, such as palm reading, aura reading, and iridology; from assertions that UFOs are alien spacecraft visiting Earth in large numbers (unbeknownst to astronomers searching so far in vain for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence) to more recent obsessions in which aliens are supposedly capturing unsuspecting citizens by the millions and examining them medically and sexually); the idea that near-death and out-of-body experiences are evidence of literal afterlife or soul travel; claims in pseudoanthropology such as the assertion that “ancient astronauts” brought New World inhabitants the knowledge for building meso-American pyramids, and claims of large undiscovered creatures such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, some of whose proponents offer paranormal hypotheses for why they have not yet been proved to exist.
The claims examined have also included topics that are only partly paranormal in content, yet nevertheless pose urgent public issues. These include the use of graphology and polygraphy to screen job applicants; creationists’ attempts to disguise literal interpretations of biblical scripture as “creation science” and insert it into science curriculums; and the recent widely promulgated assertions about “recovered memories”—the claims that therapists using hypnosis really are uncovering true memories of ritualistic and satanic sexual abuses of children for which no other evidence is available. These more mainstream kinds of issues are increasingly being addressed by CSICOP in its more recent publications and conferences.
CSICOP draws upon the expertise of scientists, scholars, and authors from a wide range of fields in the physical, behavioral, and social sciences; philosophy and the humanities; and people outside academia (including science writers and several magicians and detectives) who have special skills in investigating claims or informing the public.
In a strict organizational sense, CSICOP consists of an 11-member Executive Council; approximately 70 Fellows (including three Nobel laureates) who have made distinguished contributions in science, scholarship, and public education about science in its broadest context; numerous Scientific and Technical Consultants, who may come from virtually any field of expertise relevant to the issues CSICOP tackles; and small subcommittees on astrology, health claims, parapsychology, and UFOs.
The CSICOP Executive Council currently consists of Paul Kurtz; psychologists James Alcock (York University), Barry Beyerstein (Simon Fraser University), Susan J. Blackmore (University of West of England), and Ray Hyman (University of Oregon); author/critic Martin Gardner; aerospace editor Philip J. Klass (Washington, D.C.), author/investigator Joe Nickell (University of Kentucky); philosopher Lee Nisbet (Medaille College); systems analyst Bela Scheiber (Boulder, Colo.); and science writer/editor Kendrick Frazier (Editor, Skeptical Inquirer). Kurtz, Hyman, Klass, Gardner, and Nisbet have been on the Executive Council since the beginning.
Among the more prominent CSICOP Fellows are astronomer Carl Sagan, physicist Murray Gell-Mann, biophysicist Francis Crick, nuclear chemist Glenn T. Seaborg, evolutionary scientist Stephen Jay Gould, zoologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher W.V. Quine, physicist and historian of science Gerald Holton, cognitive scientist and author Douglas Hofstadter, philosopher Stephen Toulmin, physicist Richard Muller, planetary scientist David Morrison, aeronautical engineer Paul MacCready, sociologist of science Dorothy Nelkin, anthropologist Eugenie Scott, Russian physicist/engineer Sergei Kapitza, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, philosopher Mario Bunge, philosopher Paul Edwards, psychologist David Marks, Dutch astrophysicist Cornelis de Jager, mathematician John Allen Paulos, folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand, space scientist Jill Tarter, psychologist Milton Rosenberg, and psychiatrist/consumer advocate Stephen Barrett. Polymath science writer Isaac Asimov, psychologist B.F. Skinner, astronomers Bart Bok and George Abell, and philosophers Sydney Hook and Ernst Nagel were CSICOP Fellows until their deaths.
CSICOP, however, has always had a broad outreach, and the articles and investigations it publishes, the symposium speakers it convenes, and the experts it refers media to are as likely to come from outside the official membership as within it. Many of the Skeptical Inquirer’s 35,000 subscribers have also tended to consider themselves unofficial “members” of CSICOP (although they have no legal connection to the organization), so much so that the CSICOP recently established a “CSICOP Associate” class of membership.
CSICOP is international in scope and outlook, and its organizational influence extends worldwide. The Skeptical Inquirer has readers in 72 countries, and its authors come from many nations. In addition, 28 countries have formed 42 science or skeptics organizations of their on. Although autonomous and not affiliated with CSICOP, these groups have been inspired to some degree by CSICOP and share somewhat similar goals. Six countries have more than one such group: Australia, Belgium, Canada, India, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Other groups are in Argentina, Brazil, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, Israel, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, and Ukraine.
In addition, scientists and skeptics in more than half the 50 states of the United States have established autonomous local or regional groups that serve similar aims. As with the international groups, CSICOP frequently cooperates and works with them. These national, regional, and local organizations cannot speak for CSICOP, nor CSICOP for them. By maintaining an autonomous, unaffiliated status, the groups can develop programs and methods that best meet the needs of their members and adapt to unique situations of their own areas. Many of these groups publish magazines or newsletters of their own.
An important and often misunderstood point is that CSICOP itself does no research and, with only several small exceptions, carries out no investigations of its own. It encourages research and the testing of claims and provides a central clearinghouse for scientists and investigators at universities and elsewhere who do that. Its official journal, the Skeptical Inquirer, provides a place for publication, upon editorial acceptance, of some of these investigations and for debate and discussion over their significance. In this way, CSICOP plays the same role as does any scientific society. Scientific societies (American Physical Society, American Psychological Association, American Geophysical Union, American Association for the Advancement of Science, for example) seldom carry out research as an institution, with the exception of occasional policy statements. Instead their members do scientific research as part of their work at universities, laboratories, and research agencies. CSICOP is in that same situation. This policy was recognized and formalized by the CSICOP Executive Council in a statement issued in October 1981. And the Skeptical Inquirer carries a standard statement in every issue: “Articles, reports, reviews, and letters published in the Skeptical Inquirer represent the views and work of individual authors. Their publication does not necessarily constitute an endorsement by CSICOP or its members unless so stated.” Most other journals of scientific societies carry a similar statement.
CSICOP was established April 30, 1976, at an international symposium at the Amherst campus of SUNY-Buffalo on the topic of “The New Irrationalisms: Antiscience and Pseudoscience.” An advance announcement about the conference, written by Paul Kurtz, set forth the rationale and sounded themes that have characterized CSICOP’s approaches and concerns over the ensuing two decades:
There has been an enormous increase in public interest in psychic phenomena, the occult, and pseudoscience. Radio, television, newspapers, books, and magazines are presenting the case of psychic healing, psychokinesis, immortality, reincarnation, Kirlian photography, orgone energy, psychic surgery, faith healing, astrology, the chariots of the gods, UFOs, dianetics, astral projection, exorcism, poltergeists, and the ‘talents’ of Uri Geller, Edgar Cayce, and Jeane Dixon. Often the least shred of evidence for these claims is blown out of proportion and presented as ‘scientific’ proof.
Many individuals now believe that there is considerable need to organize some strategy of refutation. Perhaps we ought not to assume that the scientific enlightenment will continue indefinitely; for all we know, like the Hellenic civilization, it may be overwhelmed by irrationalism, subjectivism, and obscurantism. Perhaps antiscientific and pseudoscientific irrationalism is only a passing fashion; yet one of the best ways to deal with it is for the scientific and educational community to respond—in a responsible manner—to its alarming growth.
With these thoughts in mind, we are forming an organization tentatively called the “Committee to Scientifically Investigate Claims of Paranormal and Other Phenomena.” [The name was changed to its present form just a short time later.]
We wish to make it clear that the purpose of the committee is not to reject on a priori grounds, antecedent to inquiry, any or all such claims, but rather to examine them openly, completely, objectiveness, and carefully.
We do not yet know how large our committee will become or how ambitious its efforts will be….We have invited leading scientists and experts in many fields to join us in this important endeavor.
The committee’s founding was initially sponsored by The Humanist magazine, of which Kurtz was then editor, but shortly afterward the committee became an independent organization.
Kurtz’s lifelong concerns as a philosopher with the practical topics of ethics, politics, education, religion, science, and pseudoscience shaped the outlook of CSICOP from the very beginning.
At the conference inaugurating CSICOP, Kurtz spoke passionately on the scientific attitude versus antiscience and pseudoscience. He referred to “cults of unreason and other forms of nonsense” inundating even supposedly advanced societies. Recalling earlier ideological cults such as Nazism and Stalinism, he said, “Today, Western democratic societies are being swept by other forms of irrationalism, often blatantly antiscientific and pseudoscientific in character.” He worried that “large numbers of people are apparently ready and able to believe in a wide variety of things, however outrageous, without sufficient evidence or proof.” He gave examples of “the current rejection of reason and objectivity,” and lamented scholars who contend “that ‘one belief is a good as another’ and that there is a kind of ‘subjective truth’ immune to rational or evidential criticism.”
He said one dimension of the growth of irrationality is the proliferation of pseudoscience, and he gave examples, from then popular claims such as chariots of the gods and Bermuda triangles to perennial obsessions such as UFOs, astrology, and people who allege “psychic powers.”
I am not denying the constant need to examine evidence and to maintain an open mind. Indeed, I would insist that it is essential that scientists be willing to investigate claims of new phenomena. Science cannot be censorial and intolerant, nor cut itself off from new discoveries by making judgments antecedent to inquiry. Extreme forms of scientism can be as dogmatic as subjectivism. There is a difference, however, between the careful use of research methods on the one hand, and the tendency to hasty generalizations based upon slender evidence on the other. Regretfully, there is all too often a tendency for the credulous to latch onto the most meager data and frame vast conjectures, or to insist that their speculations have been conclusively confirmed, when they have not been.
“If we are to meet the growth of irrationality, we need to develop an appreciation for the scientific attitude as a part of culture,” Kurtz said. “...The goal of education should be to develop reflective persons—skeptical, yet receptive to new ideas; always willing to examine new departures in thought, yet insisting that they be tested before they are accepted.”
He countered concerns that science must therefore be cold and limited by referring to the “role of imagination in the sciences.” Said Kurtz: “Science can only proceed by being open to creative explorations in thought. The breakthroughs in science are astounding, and they will continue….We need to disseminate an appreciation for the adventure of the scientific enterprise.” And he said in embracing science’s double focus on reason and objectivity, we must also keep alive “the dramatic qualities of experience; poetry, music, and literature express our passionate natures….Our aesthetic impulses and our delight in beauty need cultivating. The arts are the deepest expression of our ‘spiritual’ interests, but we need to make a distinction between art and truth; for though we may appreciate aesthetic form, knowledge claims require rigorous testing.” [Quotes from Kurtz, Toward a New Enlightenment, 1994, pp. 123-133.]
Marcello Truzzi, a sociologist of science (Eastern Michigan University), was initially co-chairman with Kurtz of CSICOP. He too spoke at the founding meeting. He cautioned his colleagues not to place all occultist groups into one package. He offered a taxonomy of occultism, placing claims along a five-point scale according to whether their sources of validation were scientific, mystical, or something in between. He also emphasized that what distinguishes science from pseudoscience is not subject matter but methodology, and he listed principles inherent in science such as falsifiability and replicability. And Truzzi proposed two additional principles that have been the hallmark of skeptical evaluators ever since: “First, the burden of proof is on those who claim the existence of an anomaly; second, extraordinary proof is necessary for extraordinary claims.”
(The following year, Truzzi and CSICOP parted ways in an internal dispute that left bad feelings for years to come. One of the main issues was over the course of the Skeptical Inquirer, initially called The Zetetic and edited by Truzzi that first year, until August 1977. Truzzi wanted it to be more of an academic, especially sociological, journal; the others wanted it to deal with both academic matters and popular claims that interested and affected the public, and they wanted it to reach an audience beyond just academics. Also Truzzi wanted CSICOP to invite paranormal proponents into the organization, something the others strongly opposed. He also came from a viewpoint of cultural relativism concerning science, something that bothered many of the more science-oriented people on the committee.)
CSICOP’s birth received wide publicity. The New York Times [May 1, 1976, p. 26], under the headline, “Paranormal Phenomena Facing Scientific Study,” devoted 24 column inches to the committee’s concerns about “a rising tide of superstition and uncritical acceptance of paranormal phenomena” and its plans “to investigate such claims and publish scientific reports on their validity.” Science magazine did a reserved news article [197:646, Aug. 12, 1976]. And Science News published a three-and-a-third page article “Science and the Parascience Cults” [May 29, 1976] with a cover design showing a knight “challenging pseudoscience.” This article, based on its editor’s coverage of the organizational meeting and discussions with many of the CSICOP speakers, received the largest number of letters to the editor any article Science News had ever published. Clearly the committee had struck a responsive chord.
When CSICOP next met, in New York City in August 1977, it called a well-attended press briefing about a wide range of issues concerning the paranormal and issued a statement attacking Reader’s Digest for a “a serious act of journalistic imbalance” in a just-published and widely promoted article, “What Do We Really Know About Psychic Phenomena.” “This biased article,” CSICOP said in a letter it had sent to the popular magazine’s editor-in-chief, presents as fact a series of anecdotal and unsubstantiated ‘psychic’ experiences by individuals and pseudoscientists. It also reports ‘successful’ experiments of various sorts, without acknowledging that virtually all…were subsequently proved to be inadequately controlled, inconclusive, and in some cases, quite negative.” (The next year Reader’s Digest made amends by publishing a condensation of a March 1978 Smithsonian article about the committee’s concerns under the title “UFOs! Horoscopes! (And Other Nonsense)” [July 1978].)
The Associated Press and again the New York Times carried stories about CSICOP’s concerns about “a rising tide of uncritical belief in astrology, parapsychology, and other unfounded subjects” [New York Times, Aug. 8, 1977, p. A11]. The Times also spoke of the committee’s appeal to the media for more scientific balance in reporting on such subjects. These stories prompted the Washington Star to editorialize that the committee had overreacted. “It is overkill. It is classic gnat-killing by sledgehammer. It is the machine gunning of butterflies.” Such contrasting views about the validity of CSICOP’s concerns have carried down through the years in subsequent coverage about the organization.
In November 1977, CSICOP filed a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission against NBC for misleading the public about psychic phenomena in a two-hour pseudodocumentary program Exploring the Unknown. This complaint likewise gained considerable news coverage. Then, Time magazine (December 12, 1977) published a full-page article, “Attacking the New Nonsense,” about the committee’s challenges to paranormal claims. It referred to a wide range of concerns, quoted Paul Kurtz (and pictured both him and Uri Geller, whose feats it pointed out had been duplicated and successfully challenged by magician James Randi, a CSICOP founding Fellow), and said the committee believes that leaving paranormal claims unchallenged “will erode the spirit of skepticism that is healthy for both science and society.”
The publicity accompanying CSICOP’s birth and first year and a half of activism started a trend, one that continues to this day. Extensive media coverage about its activities and publications has been a hallmark of CSICOP’s work ever since. (CSICOP’s 1994 conference in Seattle, for example, was covered by several dozen print and television journalists and resulted in three different Associated Press articles.) A few university scientists within CSICOP have always been uncomfortable with this fact, preferring a more academic image, but Kurtz and most of the others realized from the beginning that a small group could have wide impact only through the multiplying effects of the media.
Besides, they reasoned, public education is one of the committee’s official reasons for being. CSICOP’s official mission statement, published each issue on the back cover of Skeptical Inquirer, says the committee “encourages the critical investigation of paranormal and fringe-science claims from a responsible, scientific point of view and disseminates factual information about the results of such inquiries to the scientific community and the public. It also promotes science and scientific inquiry, critical thinking, science education, and the use of reason in examining important issues. ” [Italics added]. All these involve public outreach, something to which CSICOP has devoted much effort.
CSICOP’s early years were marked not just by its successes but by a controversy it inherited and then got mired in involving the “Mars Effect” claims of French neoastrologer Michel Gauquelin. The details are too complex to go into here, but they involved the assertion by Gauquelin that European sports champions are born preferentially when Mars is in two of twelve sectors of the sky. Paul Kurtz had joined with statistician Marvin Zelen and astronomer George Abell to analyze Gauquelin’s evidence back before CSICOP had been founded and when Kurtz was Editor of The Humanist. They proposed a test called the Zelen test, which Gauquelin carried out and published in the November-December 1977 The Humanist. Therein a great dispute began over interpretations of the test’s outcome, which Gauquelin considered favorable to his hypothesis and Kurtz and Zelen considered ambiguous. A subsequent test by Kurtz, Zelen, and Abell using data on U.S. sports champions produced clear negative results, although an initial sample too small for statistical significance was consistent with Gauquelin’s hypothesis.
All this work engendered two controversies, one about the substantive aspects of the statistical claims and the tests of them, one an internal dispute that occupied much of the CSICOP Executive Council’s time for three or four years. Dennis Rawlins, an original member of the Executive Council and a critic of Gauquelin’s hypothesis, nevertheless felt strongly that the design of the Zelen tests was flawed and Kurtz, Zelen, and Abell’s negative interpretations of its results were inappropriate. He intensified his criticisms to a personal level, was eventually dropped from the Executive Council, and wrote a long critical article in the 1981 Fate which he called “sTARBABY.” The Skeptical Inquirer published Rawlins’ account of these matters in his ascerbic commentary “Remus Extremus,” together with an editor’s introduction and responding statements by the Executive Council and Kurtz and Abell (SI, 6:58-67, Winter 1981-82).
Subsequently, Abell, Kurtz, and Zelen published a follow-up article in the Skeptical Inquirer reviewing and reappraising their experiments (7:77-82, Spring 1983). They agreed with four criticisms of their statement about the Zelen test and three criticisms of their U.S. test. Nevertheless, they said their U.S. study was a valid one and it “gave results highly inconsistent with a Mars effect for athletes.” They concluded: “We regret that at the outset we had not the foresight to exercise a great deal more care in our experiments and in reporting them. Had we done so, we might have been able to reach conclusions more convincing to others. On the other hand, it is doubtful if anything we could have done would have settled the matter…We urge future investigators to proceed with utmost care.” They urged suspension of judgment about the “Mars effect” until there are future independent replications. This, and the previously mentioned policy statement about not doing research as an institutional body, ended CSICOP’s involvement in the “Mars effect” controversy. A French committee (CFEPP) has since been examining the hypothesis, and Kurtz recently briefly reviewed the current status of the scientific debate and the French results, which are negative (SI, 19(1):4, January-February 1995, pp. 4, 62).
Of the thousands of articles that have been written about CSICOP and The Skeptical Inquirer, two in particular stand out. The first is Douglas R. Hofstadter’s lengthy “Metamagical Themas” column in the February 1982 Scientific American. In Hofstadter’s lively, personal, and questioning philosophical style, it contrasted in detail “two kinds of inquiry: ‘National Enquirer’ and ‘The Skeptical Inquirer.’“ It ruminated on how we know what we know is true, and it summarized many substantive Skeptical Inquirer articles and discussions to capture the flavor and content of the magazine. Hofstadter summarized:
“The purpose of The Skeptical Inquirer is simply to combat nonsense. It does so by recourse to common sense, which means it is accessible to anyone who can read English. It does not require any special knowledge to read its pages, where nonsensical claims are routinely smashed to smithereens. All that is required to read this maverick journal is curiosity about how truth defends itself (through its agent CSICOP) against attacks from all quarters by unimaginably imaginative theorizers, speculators, eccentrics, crackpots, and out-and-out fakers.”
Hofstadter referred to The Skeptical Inquirer as a David fighting Goliath. “Its pages are filled with lively and humorous writing—the combat of ideas in its most enjoyable form.” He ended by saying the goal of the Skeptical Inquirer is not “to empty the vast ocean of irrationality that all of us are surrounded by” but to serve as “a steady buoy to which one can cling in that tulmultous sea.” Hofstadter’s article (reprinted, with a lively update, in his book Metamagical Themas, Basic Books, 1985) directly resulted in thousands of new Skeptical Inquirer subscribers.
The second is Carl Sagan’s “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection” in Parade Magazine, Feb. 1, 1987. A popular primer for newspaper readers on critical thinking and how not to be fooled, it included a sidebar on The Skeptical Inquirer. It referred to CSICOP as “the leading organization” of scientists, conjurers, and others devoted to examining the borders of science. “Its periodical, The Skeptical Inquirer, is cheerful, irreverent, instructive, and often very funny.” He then included a listing of 39 specific subjects discussed in its pages plus “innumerable cases of acute credulity by newspapers, magazines and television specials and news programs.”
Not all the notices have been favorable. Critics of the committee are legion, not just among astrologers, UFO promoters, psychics, and the like, but among some of the more respected parapsychological organizations and in parts of academia.
One common assertion of critics is that CSICOP is engaged in self-appointed “scientific vigilantism” against believers in the paranormal. CSICOP counters that it is simply offering an alternative voice usually ignored by believers and much of the media and is only trying to encourage critical thinking and a scientific attitude toward questionable claims. CSICOP is often depicted by critics as cold-hearted “debunkers,” whereas CSICOP contends that claims must stand or fall on the evidence and that negative judgments after full evaluation of the evidence are not to be scorned but are a part of legitimate scientific inquiry. It also constantly warns its colleagues that making judgments without, or prior to, investigation is not in the scientific spirit. CSICOP scientists also frequently point out that real science is constantly unveiling all sorts of marvelous and awesome wonders that far outstrip anything pseudoscience offers.
Another criticism is that it tends to treat all claims with the same all-out blunderbuss attack, lacking a sense of proportion between the trivial and the serious. This is occasionally true, but while it has been merciless in attacking the grandiose and self-serving assertions of “psychics,” for example, it has, at least in recent years, been far more moderate in its criticisms of the more respected work of experimental parapsychology. Some commentators contend that CSICOP’s concerns about the threat to science and reason and the entire rational tradition in Western civilization are exaggerated and that science is a strong institution not readily tumbled. That complaint may have truth to it, but CSICOP-affiliated scientists point out that science must function within the society of which it is a part, and that serious lack of understanding of scientific principles and of methods of analyzing complex claims and issues is dangerous for a technological society. Furthermore, the same kinds of concerns are frequently expressed by scientists and others who have no connection with CSICOP.
In his recent book Science in the New Age (University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), David J. Hess of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute treats “skeptics” and the skepticism associated with CSICOP and its allies as one of three communities in parallel with “New Agers” and “parapsychologists.” They all have obvious differences, often vehement ones, about what constitutes valid and invalid knowledge, he says, but then contends they are nevertheless “also forging a shared culture….This emergent paranormal culture is enough ‘beyond’ (para) the mainstream that I think of it as a ‘paraculture.’“
Hess treats CSICOP members’ writings thoughtfully and seriously, but makes much of their martial and military metaphors and what he sees as tendency to adopt the role of self-conscious heroic underdog, “who may overstep the boundaries of scientific methods in order to preserve the rule of science” [p.88]. CSICOP has not responded in any institutional way, but its members typically see themselves as part of mainstream science and scholarship. This is so even though their level of concern about uncritical acceptance of paranormal claims may be greater than that of many of their colleagues.
Furthermore, CSICOP legitimately sees itself as far more heterogeneous and decentralized than do its critics. In an important sense, as noted earlier, there is no CSICOP. The organization is merely a small scientific and educational organization advocating science and reason. CSICOP has a tiny staff, mostly part-time, in Amherst, N.Y. Its chairman has numerous other responsibilities (founder of Prometheus Books, Editor of Free Inquiry magazine, chairman of the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism, author of more than thirty books, for example) and has never received any CSICOP salary. The committee is financed entirely through subscriptions and donations and is always severely pressed for funds.
CSICOP is essentially a catalyst. It is the people out there in the universities, laboratories, and lecture halls who deal with these issues every day as part of their regular work—questions about the paranormal or fringe-science matters from their friends or students, queries from local radio stations or newspapers—it is they who are often considered “CSICOP.” They may be members of the organization (the several hundred Fellows or Scientific or Technical Consultants); oftentimes they are not. They’re just toilers in the field of ideas who share the concerns often enunciated by CSICOP members. That’s how it works.
The most visible work of CSICOP is The Skeptical Inquirer. It is edited far from CSICOP’s headquarters, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Kendrick Frazier, the Editor since August 1977, lives. (He also works as a staff member at a large national laboratory.) Frazier had previously been Editor of Science News magazine in Washington, D.C., and before that had edited the National Academy of Sciences’ monthly News Report. In consultation with an editorial board and reviewers, he makes decisions about articles and other material from authors scattered across the globe. The magazine is then copyedited and prepared, on a desktop publishing system, at CSICOP’s headquarters and printed in Virginia.
Starting with its January-February 1995 issue, the Skeptical Inquirer increased its frequency from quarterly to bimonthly and expanded from digest-size to a standard magazine-size. It has a paid circulation of about 35,000. Although traditionally mostly a subscription-only publication, in recent years it has gradually added newsstand circulation. In 1995 it began to extend its editorial reach through an additional 20,000 or so newsstand distribution.
Over the years, the Skeptical Inquirer has published some notable investigations. A few examples:
*Cold Reading. In “How to Convince Strangers That You Know All About Them” (Vol. 1 No. 2, Spring/Summer 1977), psychologist Ray Hyman reveals the techniques “psychics,” fortune-tellers, palm-readers, and virtually all pretenders to the divination trade use to make you think they have special knowledge about you and your future. This is the Skeptical Inquirer’s most-requested article.
*“Fooling Some of the People All of the Time” (Winter 1980-81). Another much-cited article. Psychologists Barry Singer and Victor Benassi constructed an experiment to demonstrate and explore the phenomenon that amateur psychic demonstrations compel many people to strong occult beliefs. A magician was presented to two separate classes as a “psychic,” to two other classes correctly as a “magician.” Two-thirds of all the classes believed he was a psychic. Even large numbers of those who had been shown how the tricks were done still believed they were “psychic.” One conclusion: “People can stubbornly maintain a belief about someone’s psychic powers when they know better.” We are typically inept at reasoning through even the simplest conceptual task involving alternative hypotheses.
*Project Alpha Experiment (Summer 1983). Magician/investigator James Randi, a CSICOP founding Fellow, “planted” two young magician friends, Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards, in the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research at Washington University, St. Louis. The intent was to see whether the pro-psychic experimenters would introduce controls necessary to detect trickery and whether they would accept expert conjuring assistance in designing proper control procedures. They failed on both counts, and Randi’s demonstration, reported intially in Discover magazine, caused a tremendous uproar. Randi was both praised and castigated, and the laboratory eventually lost its private funding and shut down.
*The Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon (Summer 1985). Philosopher Ron Amundson investigated writer Lyall Watson’s widely publicized New Age claim that Japanese macaques, even on different islands, suddenly all learned a particular new potato-washing behavior once a critical mass of the population (a hundred) learned it, a paranormal-like “group consciousness.” Amundson checked the scientific sources Watson cited and showed that these articles themselves invalidated his claims. There was no hundredth monkey. There was no spontaneously learned behavior. Watson later admitted that he had made up most of the details (Amundson, Spring 1987). “I accept Amundson’s analysis of the origin and evolution of the Hundredth Monkey without reservation,” said Watson. “It is metaphor of my own making, based—as he rightly suggests—on very slim evidence and a great deal of hearsay.”
*Firewalking (Fall 1985). Physicist Bernard Leikind and psychologist William McCarthy walked on coals and explained how the ability has nothing to do with powers of the mind but with the low heat capacity of charcoal.
*“The Moon Was Full and Nothing Happened” (Winter 1985-86). Psychologists Ivan W. Kelly and James Rotton and astronomer Roger Culver reviewed and did a meta-analysis of 37 studies of the moon and human behavior. Despite much folk belief to the contrary, they found no causal link between lunar phases and behavior. They described the cognitive biases that lead to the beliefs.
*“Serious” astrology. In a comprehensive and thorough two-part analysis (“Does Astrology Have to Be True?” Winter 1986-87, Spring 1987), Geoffrey Dean examined in detail real astrology (not the popular version of newspaper columns and fairground tents), the reasons astrologers believe in it, and the very latest evidence. The conclusion: Astrology doesn’t meet any scientific tests, but it does not need to be true in order to “work.” Authentic birth charts are not essential. Bogus ones work just as well. Different astrological systems contradict each other. “Thus the real thing emerges as a kind of psychological chewing gum, satisfying but ultimately without real substance.”
*Testing Psi in China (Summer 1988). A CSICOP delegation (Paul Kurtz, James Randi, James Alcock, Philip J. Klass, Kendrick Frazier, and Barry Karr) was invited to China in 1988, where they tested a variety of psychics, a Qigong master, and some of China’s famous “psychic children” (in Xian). All the tests produced negative results. Under double-blind conditions, there was no correlation between the Qigong master’s movements and the “responses” of a woman in a separate room he was trying to affect by a Qigong “energy” supposedly emanating from his fingers. The psychic children failed all tests where cheating was prevented, and cheated on all tests where it was purposely allowed (to see what they would do). Their mentor enforced no experimental controls of his own, allowing the children to roam around and even outside the building at will during tests he controlled. He seemed mystified even at the need for the controls.
*“Near-Death Experiences: In or Out of the Body?” (Fall 1991). Psychologist Susan J. Blackmore examined near-death experiences by looking at neurochemistry, physiology, and psychology. She proposed a theory based on her laboratory experiments and computer simulations that explains the “tunnel effect” and other vivid aspects of the NDE experience in naturalistic terms. She sympathetically discussed how “an essentially physiological event” can nevertheless seem completely real and can change people’s lives profoundly.
*Subliminal persuasion. In three articles (Spring 1992), psychologists Anthony Pratkanis, Timothy Moore, Brady Phelps, and Mary Exum recounted experiments revealing the facts, fallacies, and myths of subliminal persuasion and so-called subliminal advertising.
*Facilitated Communication (Spring 1993). In two lead articles, pediatric psychologists James Mulick, John Jacobson, and Frank Kobe and psychologist Kathleen Dillon showed persuasively that the claims of facilitated communication, used in well-meant attempts to communicate with autistic and other children, were bogus. Controlled experiments revealed that the person doing the communicating is the adult “facilitator,” not the patient.
*Reincarnation (Fall 1994). Leonard Angel examined one of the strongest of Ian Stevenson’s 20 “most impressive” cases for reincarnation (the Imad Elawar case) and concluded that it fails on six fundamental points in providing any case for reincarnation. (Stevenson disputed the analysis.)
In addition to these articles the Skeptical Inquirer has published in every issue since Summer 1983 a “Notes of a Fringe-Watcher” column by Martin Gardner. Gardner, a CSICOP founding Fellow, has been perceptive observer and critic of fringe-science, pseudoscience, and paranormalism for close to five decades. His first book on the subject, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (Dover Books) is a classic. He followed that withScience: Good, Bad, and Bogus in 1981, and his Skeptical Inquirer columns have appeared in his more recent books The New Age: Notes of a Fringe-Watcher (1988, 1991) and On the Wild Side (1992), all from Prometheus. (Likewise, approximately 120 of the Skeptical Inquirer’s most important articles are available in three anthologies published by Prometheus Books,Paranormal Borderlands of Science, 1981; Science Confronts the Paranormal, 1986; and The Hundredth Monkey and Other Paradigms of the Paranormal, 1991.)
Most of the specific articles described earlier are investigative, and that may be the image of the prototypical Skeptical Inquirer article. They tend to be the most controversial ones. But probably the greatest share of articles the magazine publishes are explanatory, informational, or tutorial. (Examples of the latter: “The Right Hemisphere: An Esoteric Closet?” sorting through what’s true and untrue in popular concepts about underuse of the brain’s right hemisphere, Summer 1993, and “Why You Are Unmoved as the Oceans Ebb and Flow,” about tides and the body, Fall 1994.) Or they might discuss philosophical, scientific, educational, or social issues involving science, fringe-science, and the paranormal, and how they interrelate. (Two recent examples: Carl Sagan’s “Wonder and Skepticism,” January-February 1995, and William Grey’s two-part “Philosophy and the Paranormal,” Winter and Spring 1994.)
The magazine has also published a number of articles intended to help people gain an understanding of unusual experiences so that they may see alternative explanations to the paranormal one. A good example is psychologist Susan Blackmore’s “Psychic Experiences: Psychic Illusions” (Summer 1992), where she showed how psychic experiences are the inevitable consequence of how we think and that they are comparable to visual illusions. The Skeptical Inquirer has even published an occasional entertaining profile, such as “Luis Alvarez and the Explorer’s Quest” (Fall 1989), “Penn and Teller: The Magical Iconoclasts” (Spring 1991), and “Jack Horkheimer, ‘Star Hustler,’“ (Summer 1993). When Isaac Asimov died, editor Frazier wrote a long personal essay about Asimov’s phenomenal body of work and solicited tributes from prominent scientists and science fiction authors worldwide (Fall 1992). Likewise, when Carl Honorton died, Susan Blackmore wrote about his legacy to parapsychology (Spring 1993).
In a column “New Directions, Awesome Science, and Critical Inquiry” (Winter 1990), the editor announced a widening of the scope of the Skeptical Inquirer to include occasional pieces on scientific advances and a sense of the adventure of science. He also inaugurated a series of articles and essays on science education and on critical thinking. A later column, “Our Wide and Fertile Field” (Summer 1993), noted how the magazine had begun exploring more topics along the borderlands of science—the “broad and fuzzy area” where “good science and bad science, real science and bogus science, and everything in between, coexist in uncomfortable disharmony”. These are areas that “don’t fit any classic description of the ‘paranormal.’“ Examples: multicultural pseudoscience, self-help books, claims of ritualistic cult abuse, probability paradoxes, misuses of hypnosis, and “honesty” tests for employment. “Many involve important issues that make mainstream news, cause problems, raise disturbing questions, affect our lives. All merit serious, scientifically informed analysis.”
This slowly broadening scope of the magazine extends its reach well beyond the core paranormal topics and concerns. Evaluating paranormal claims will probably always be its central mission. But the Skeptical Inquirer plans to continue to broaden its scope to examine more mainstream issues that affect broad segments of society.
This broadening scope has also been true of CSICOP’s series of annual conferences. Held at somewhat more than yearly intervals since 1983, the conferences have covered a wide range of issues, some related to the paranormal and some not. But they seem always to attract knowledgeable persons, usually from academia, able to address important issues with balance, authority, and responsibility. The latest, “The Psychology of Belief,” in Seattle in June 1994, was said by many attendees to have been the best yet. It had sessions on “The Belief Engine: How Worldviews are Formed,” “How We Fool Ourselves: Anomalies of Perception and Interpretation,” “Memory: How Reliable Is It?” “Influencing Beliefs in the Courtroom,” “Conspiracy Theories,” “Near-Death Experiences,” and the keynote address by Carl Sagan. Those who have attended have given the conferences high marks for their quality.
In 1989, lawsuits began to occupy CSICOP’s time and absorb its financial resources. Two major libel lawsuits, the first (in 1989) by Maryland “paranormal researcher” Eldon Byrd and the second (in 1991) by self-proclaimed “psychic” Uri Geller, were filed against James Randi, with CSICOP named as codefendant. The Byrd suit requested $38 million in damages, the Geller suit $15 million. Both involved remarks allegedly made by Randi, outside of any CSICOP forum, the first in a lecture in New York City and in a now-defunct magazine, the second in an interview in the International Herald-Tribune. (A third suit, filed by Geller against Randi and CSICOP in New York, was dismissed early on a technicality.) Randi had been in an extended dispute with Geller ever since Geller’s rise to prominence in the 1970s, when Randi had set about exposing various Geller feats as conjuring tricks.
The suits proved very costly for CSICOP and Randi to defend—and it more ways than just financial. CSICOP was initially constrained for legal reasons from openly discussing details of the cases, but in “On Being Sued: The Chilling of Freedom of Expression” (Skeptical Inquirer, 16:114-117, Winter 1992), chairman Paul Kurtz spoke to the larger issues of the threat the suits posed to the freedom of speech, scientific inquiry, and dissent. He said such lawsuits were an attempt to “drain skeptics financially” and tie up all their time and resources. He said CSICOP always hoped to avoid legal wrangles and sought to deal with all issues at an intellectual level, but added: “. . . When the principles upon which CSICOP was founded are at stake, we are prepared to do battle all the way, if it should prove necessary. CSICOP and the Skeptical Inquirer have often presented controversial and provocative critiques that we consider important scientific contributions. We believe deeply in a free press, freedom of speech and scientific inquiry and the importance of dissent.” He said the suits had had a “chilling effect on full and frank discussion of these issues,” but vowed, “in these stormy seas of misfortune” to attempt to “keep the skeptics’ ship afloat. . . .We do not intend to be silenced.”
Kurtz also candidly discussed the pain the lawsuits had caused in the committee’s relationships with Randi, one of its original founding Fellows and a longtime member of its Executive Council. Randi had by then separated from CSICOP, partly to protect it from further suits and partly because of ill feelings enCSICOP by necessity had to insist that it should not and cannot be held legally liable for statements made by its Fellows outside of CSICOP forums. Randi was, and is, a hero to CSICOP and to the worldwide skeptical movement generally, and the whole matter was a sad and extremely painful episode for all involved.
The legal defenses proved successful. In the Byrd case, CSICOP was found not to have libeled Byrd. Randi was found guilty but the judgment nevertheless proved to be a victory because the jury set damages at zero.
In the Geller case, the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., agreed with CSICOP’s contention that its inclusion on the suit constituted legal harassment and awarded CSICOP monetary sanctions. Geller filed motions for reconsideration, which were denied, and the court on July 27, 1993, entered judgment against Geller for $149,000, representing fees and costs incurred by CSICOP in defending the actions. Geller then appealed, and on December 9, 1994, the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia found “ample support for the district court’s imposition of sanctions against Geller. . . . Given Geller’s litigious history, we find no abuse of discretion in this direct imposition of sanctions.” It affirmed the sanctions against Geller.
Despite the legal victory, CSICOP in early 1995 had yet to receive any money from Geller. It appeared the organization would have to expend still more legal resources in an attempt to recover the monetary sanctions. The committee had been saved from financial ruin only by supporters’ and subscribers’ contributions to a Legal Defense Fund it had set up to help pay for the costs of defending itself against the suits. Randi, with a series of his own victories, continued his legal fights with Geller, but they had cost him dearly. A private James Randi Legal Defense Fund had helped pay some of his legal costs, but he had nevertheless suffered terribly both financially and otherwise.
After years in a less than desirable location in Buffalo, N.Y., CSICOP in 1992 finally occupied permanent quarters in suburban Amherst, N.Y., across from the campus of SUNY-Buffalo where it was founded. CSICOP made plans to celebrate its twentieth anniversary there in 1996. In recent years, CSICOP has been carrying out a capital campaign to modernize an existing building on the new site and erect a new one to bring a sense of permanence and long-term stability to an organization of which Paul Kurtz said at its founding, “We don’t know how large our committee will become or how ambitious its efforts will be.”
Kurtz wrote recently in the Skeptical Inquirer (January-February 1995): “When CSICOP was founded 18 years ago, little did we imagine that it would receive such a positive reception from thoughtful persons in the scientific community and elsewhere who were skeptical of psychic phenomena, astrology, ufology, homeopathy, and the newer, bizarre beliefs of the New Age. Nor did we imagine that paranormal claims would continue to proliferate throughout the world….Thank you…for helping make the Skeptical Inquirer and CSICOP so relevant and vital.”
In his recent book The New Skepticism (Prometheus 1992) and a Skeptical Inquirer essay by the same title (18:139, Winter 1994), Paul Kurtz contrasted pragmatic “skeptical inquiry” or what he called the new skepticism with other forms of skepticism. “A key difference between this and earlier forms of skepticism is that it is positive and constructive. It involves the transformation of the negative critical analysis of the claims to knowledge into a positive contribution to the growth and development of skeptical inquiry. . . .This skepticism is not total, but is limited to the context under inquiry.” He called for its application to many areas, not just the formal sciences. And he called upon investigators always to be open-minded about new possibilities, “always be willing to question or overturn even the most well-established principles in light of further inquiry.” The “new skepticism” may well serve as a philosophical guide for the committee’s future course.
In his keynote address to the 1994 CSICOP conference (published in the Skeptical Inquirer as “Wonder and Skepticism,” 19(1):24-30, January-February 1995), CSICOP Fellow Carl Sagan gave a ringing endorsement of the positive virtues of scientific skepticism. “Why is it so successful?” he asked. “Science has built in error-correcting mechanisms…There are no forbidden questions. Arguments from authority are worthless. Claims must be demonstrated. Ad hominem arguments…are irrelevant….Our preferences do not determine what’s true. We have a method, and that method helps us to reach not absolute truth, only asymptotic approaches to the truth—never there, just closer and closer, always finding vast new oceans of undiscovered possibilities.” And he warned fellow skeptics against an “Us vs. Them” polarization—“the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth….This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across.” He called instead for acknowledging “the human roots of pseudoscience and superstition” and noting “that the society has arranged things so that science is not well taught.” He said what’s necessary is “a judicious mix” of “almost complete openness to new ideas” and “the most vigorous and uncompromising skepticism.” Skeptical questioning, he said, “is the affordable price we pay for having the benefits of so powerful a tool as science.”