CSICOP Celebrates 25th Anniversary
Kevin Christopher and Ben Radford
On April 21 and 22, 2001, skeptics gathered at the Center for Inquiry- International, in Amherst, New York, to help CSICOP celebrate a quarter century of promoting skepticism. CSICOP was founded in 1976 by SUNY philosophy professor Paul Kurtz, and grew over the years with the support of luminaries such as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and L. Sprague de Camp. CSICOP publishes both the Skeptical Briefs and the Skeptical Inquirer magazine.
The day started with meetings of local skeptics groups from around the country. Recently appointed Local Group Liaison Béla Scheiber moderated the discussions, which were generally productive. Topics ranged from how to develop better relations with the media to ways to improve the coordination of speakers on tour.
Several guest speakers entertained the attendees, including Paul Kurtz; Senior Research Fellow Joe Nickell; Toronto magician and skeptic Henry Gordon; CSICOP Executive Director Barry Karr; head of the Rocky Mountain Skeptics Béla Scheiber; Professor of Philosophy at Medaille College and first CSICOP Executive Director Lee Nisbet; and Skeptical Inquirer managing editor Benjamin Radford.
Most of the talks centered around the early days of CSICOP, taking on challenges that ranged from leaky roofs (which threatened to destroy magazines) to lawsuits (which threatened to bankrupt CSICOP). But through it all, the grizzled, veteran skeptics managed to retain their sense of humor, camaraderie, and objectivity.
Because reaching out to local groups is one of the missions of the Skeptical Briefs, we provide here profiles of some of the local skeptics groups who participated in the forum. This list is not all-inclusive, and we had not received all the requested information as of press time. But we hope this survey of groups will help “lone skeptics” and others become more familiar with who’s who, who’s where, and who’s doing what. Readers are encouraged to contact their local groups directly; for information on starting a group, contact Béla Scheiber at P.O. Box 4482, Boulder, CO 80306.
Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York (ISUNY)
ISUNY was founded in the spring of 1994 by Michael Sofka, Robert Mulford, Sue and Alan French, and several Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute students. The group serves the Capital Region area of New York, with members in Albany, Schenectady, Rensselaer, and Saratoga counties. The paid membership for the year 2000 was twenty-one members.
ISUNY no longer publishes its newsletter, The Why Files. Back issues, however, (up to October 1999) are available on the group’s Web site at www.rpi.edu/~sofkam/isuny.
The group has been holding roughly quarterly meetings since last spring. ISUNY is one of the skeptic groups in a “rebuilding phase.”
ISUNY’s interests have been far-ranging and included not just traditional pseudosciences and paranormal claims, but also issues of science in the news including life on Mars, global warming, and SETI. However, they have also had their share of UFO, creationism, and psychic power talks.
Given ISUNY may take a break for awhile, it is hard to say specifically what will happen in skepticism. However, they are on the whole optimistic about the recent efforts of the local groups to work more closely together, and to build official ties between themselves and CSICOP. As for the kind of claims skeptics deal with, they will most likely be the usual, with some impossible-to-predict surprises.
The New England Skeptics Society (NESS)
NESS was founded in 1996 by Steven Novella, Robert Novella, and Perry DeAngelis. Current membership is 230, and the society publishes the The New England Journal of Skepticism quarterly. The group’s Web site can be found at www.theness.com.
NESS has worked on local investigations, including haunted houses, telekinesis, and a demonic possession case. The society also hosts lecture series in Connecticut and Massachusetts and social events for members, in addition to providing seminars on skepticism in various venues.
The group’s current paranormal and pseudoscience interests cover the gamut of claims. Steve Novella’s personal area of interest is alternative medicine. Novella sees the skeptical movement growing as a larger segment of the population becomes fed up with all the paranormal nonsense in our culture. “I also see that as a movement we are getting better at doing what we do. My hope for the next ten years is that we become more organized as a cohesive movement.”
The Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking (PhACT)
PhACT was founded in 1994 by a group of twelve people after CSICOP held an open meeting. Their publication, PhACTUM, goes out to around 170 people. They serve eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware. The PhACT Web site is at www.phact.org/phact.
PhACT hosts social events and lectures, and sponsors investigations. They have an interest in all paranormal claims, but have had special interest in claims of free energy, therapeutic touch, magnet therapy, and police use of psychics.
Looking into the future, PhACT spokesman Eric Krieg foresees a continued urgent need for skepticism. “Skepticism,” says Krieg, “will be just as needed then as now; I hope critical thinking can be a regular part of grade school curriculum.”
National Capital Area Skeptics (NCAS)
NCAS’s first meeting was held in March 1987. NCAS serves the National Capital Area. Most members live in Maryland (from Baltimore, south to D.C.), Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia, although there are a few members spread throughout the nation.
NCAS currently has about 275 members, and publishes a monthly calendar, Shadow of a Doubt, from September through June, which advertises monthly meetings plus other relevant skeptical events over the next month. Electronic copies of the Shadow are archived on the NCAS Web site.
In addition, the NCAS publishes a quarterly magazine-the Skeptical Eye- which is approximately 16-20 pages and has 3-4 page articles of interest, usually written by NCAS members.
The NCAS Web site is www.ncas.org. The Web site contains old Shadow calendars, links to other groups, information about upcoming and past meetings, and a few documents (e.g., the only electronic copy of the 1968 Condon report on UFOs).
The NCAS currently hosts monthly meetings with speakers from the Washington D.C. area and weekly meetings on Saturday afternoon at a local library. Other events and activities include “Friday 13th” movie nights; annual weekend workshops, such as Ghostbusting 101 (before Halloween-about ghosts and spirits); archiving of hard to get documents on the Web; and maintaining contacts with local media on skeptical issues.
The group is very diverse, and exhibits a wide range of interests. One board member is interested in spiritualism; two in pseudohistory and historical fallacies; one in growth of religious beliefs; many in “bad science,” alternative therapies, and psychobabble therapies. Monthly meetings cover UFOs, creationism, and other related topics.
In coming years, NCAS Secretary Marvin Zelkowitz foresees “a great revival” of pseudoscience, religious fanaticism, and alternative therapies. “I think skepticism is in for a rough few years,” says Zelkowitz. “Hopefully only a few.”
Tampa Bay Skeptics (TBS)
The Tampa Bay Skeptics group was founded in 1988 by Dr. Gary P. Posner. The group serves the west-central portion of Florida (with some members scattered about the state and country). Current membership numbers eighty-one. The group publishes the quarterly newsletter, the Tampa Bay Skeptics Report. Its Web site is www.tampabayskeptics.org. The group hosts quarterly meetings and conducts occasional controlled tests of psychic claimants. The group’s interests currently focus primarily psychic claims. Members are chronicling the record regarding the career of Florida-based “psychic detective” Noreen Renier.
Posner’s response to the question of what he sees in the future of skepticism in the next ten years: “Unlike the psychics, I cannot foresee the future.”
North Texas Skeptics (NTS)
The North Texas Skeptics began in 1983 as the “Dallas Society to Oppose Pseudo- science.” The founders included Chair Ron J. Hastings, Ph. D.; Co-chair James P. Smith, Ph.D.; Treasurer John Thomas, J.D.; Secretary Mary Hunter; and Liaison Vicki Hinson-Smith. The group’s name was changed to North Texas Skeptics in 1987 and was incorporated as a 501(C)3 in 1991.
The North Texas Skeptics serve Dallas-Fort Worth and the surrounding areas of North Texas. The group currently has forty-five members. Its monthly newsletter is The North Texas Skeptic, and its Web address is www.ntskeptics.org.
Current activities include hosting a lecture once a month, and meeting socially once a month-usually at a local restaurant when holding its board meeting.
The NTS focuses on all areas that deserve critical inquiry: UFOs, creationism, pseudoscience, faith healing, psychics, etc. President Curtis Severns focuses more on areas related to religious belief such as creationism, faith healing, exorcism, and biblical fallacy.
As to what the future holds for skepticism and rationality, “that’s hard to say,” says Severns. “But if the local groups and CSICOP all follow through with plans to cooperate, then science and rational thinking may stand a better chance. Building an international membership organization will allow us to begin to compete against the unlimited supply of nonsense. One thing is for sure: our jobs as skeptics are secure for many years to come. Now if only the pay would get better.”
The Georgia Skeptics
The Georgia Skeptics was founded in 1989 when Barry Karr suggested local Skeptical Inquirer subscribers meet, then facilitated that meeting. Officially the group has no members, says Rebecca Long, “since we're currently only operating on an informal basis and aren’t collecting dues.” She estimates, however, that between 150 and 200 people associate themselves with Georgia Skeptics. The group is working on restarting the publication of its newsletter and putting up a new Web site.
While the Georgia Skeptics currently sponsors no activities, some people are active as individuals, particularly in anti-quackery and in pseudoscience in psychology. Group associates support each other in these efforts. Rebecca Long’s interests include alternative medicine, pseudoscience in psychology, critical thinking and philosophy of science.
Long is not sure what the future holds for the skeptics movement, but emphasizes that the “Georgia Skeptics feels strongly that it should be kept separate from atheist and humanist groups.”
Carolina Skeptics (formerly Triad Area Skeptics Club)
Carolina Skeptics was founded September 30, 1998, at a meeting attended by Eric Carlson, Terry Blumenthal, Tom Concannon, and Miahuoa Jiang. The organization currently boasts about ninety members (depending on who has sent in their dues recently). Most of our members are from North Carolina, but we also have members in South Carolina and Virginia.
Their newsletter, Skeptically Speaking, appears quarterly (in March, June, September, and December). The club’s Web site is at www.carolinaskeptics.org.
Carolina Skeptics hold monthly social gatherings in the Triad Area (Winston-Salem, usually) and infrequent social gatherings in the Research Triangle area (of North Carolina). They have talks about every two months on topics of interest to skeptics, occasionally investigate paranormal claims, and have miscellaneous other activities at infrequent intervals (picnics, Friday the 13th bashes).
Eric Carlson looks forward to skeptics becoming “increasingly media savvy. The appearance of new technologies will reinvigorate public awareness of and interest in science.”
The Rational Examination Association of Lincoln Land (REALL)
REALL was founded in February 1993 by David Bloomberg, Wally Hartshorn, and Bob Ladendorf -all of whom are still active in the organization. The group currently has approximately sixty members, and publishes The REALL News newsletter on a monthly basis. Its Web site is www.reall.org.
They hold monthly meetings at which they have speakers or videotaped presentations. “Most of our activity involves keeping in touch with the media when the opportunity presents itself. Hopefully,” says Bloomberg, “we will continue to make inroads with the media. Unfortunately, I suspect those inroads will not be as substantial as I’d like them to be, as all indications are that people will continue to believe things without evidence just as they have done in the past. But we still have to try.”
The Cincinnati Skeptics
The Cincinnati Skeptics was founded 1992; the founding organizer and leader was Joe Gastright, who organized the group after a meeting of CSICOP in Cincinnati. The group serves the Greater Cincinnati Metropolitan Region, including three counties in North Kentucky, Dearborn County in Indiana, and the Miami Valley to Dayton, Ohio. The group currently has a membership of ninety-eight.
The group publishes the Cincinnati Skeptic newsletter every two months, maintains a Web site at www.Cincinnatiskeptics.org, and hosts monthly public meetings.
When asked about the the future of skepticism in the next decade, Wolf Roder says, “My crystal ball is cloudy, i.e., the only thing I know with certainty, I won’t be around in twenty years. I suppose eventually most religion-based pseudoscience will disappear. It took the Pope only 400 years to acknowledge Galileo, so Darwin has only 250 years to go. Astrology, dowsing, and similar non-religious driven ideas most likely will be around for another five thousand years.”
Central Ohioans for Rational Inquiry (CORI)
CORI was founded in 1996 by Ann Pratt. Current membership is approximately fifty. CORI publishes a newsletter-the CORI Bulletin and maintains a Web site at www.hazlett.net/cori. The group meets monthly. Current areas of interest include alternative medicine and UFOs.
Commenting on the future of skepticism and rationally inquiry, CORI’s Charlie Hazlett says, “Not good, the fuzzy thinkers will increase as science and knowledge increases.”
Oregonians for Rationality (O4R)
Oregonians for Rationality (O4R) was founded in 1994, holding its first organizational meeting in May. The group currently has about 150 members. Its quarterly newsletter is called the Pro Facto-Latin for “on behalf of the fact(s).” Their Web page is www.O4R.org. O4R serves all of Oregon and a corner of southwest Washington.
According to President Jeanine DeNoma, the group’s strengths lay in public education and critical thinking. “Although creationism has not been a big public issue in Oregon, it is floating freely around the state and there is a lot of interest in the topic among our members. Many of the group’s members are engineers with an interest in engineering claims such as free energy.” O4R sponsors quarterly speakers meetings. Public educational events are free and open to the public. They also hold two summer potlucks and have begun having informal restaurant dinners. “In the past we have held a Friday the 13th superstition bash, which was for members only but landed us an interview with the local paper.”
O4R also sponsors “big name” speakers that have brought out large audiences. Two talks by Eugenie Scott drew 250 people two nights in a row, once at Oregon State University and the next night at the University of Oregon. They also sponsored Dr. Wallace Sampson in Portland at the same time as the Naturopathic Physicians Conference was being held in town.
“I strongly believe that skepticism should maintain its scientific credibility by remaining focused on testable pseudoscientific claims and avoiding purely faith-based issues,” says DeNoma, when asked about skepticism in the next ten years. “This has also been the position of the Oregon skeptic’s groups board of directors. I suspect that in the coming years the biggest and hottest issues in pseudoscience will be those surrounding alternative medicine. Creationism will probably not go away anytime soon either.”
The Ottawa Skeptics
The Ottawa Skeptics were founded in 1996 by a group from the Humanist Association of Ottawa. The group serves Ottawa, Eastern Ontario, and Western Quebec. The group currently has about a dozen members. The Ottawa Skeptics Web site is at www.carleton.ca/~adalby/cats/skeptic.html. The current president is Earl Doherty.
Ottawa Skeptics are at the beginning of a campaign to have evolution taught in general (non-university oriented) public and high school science and biology courses in Ontario. They meet once a month, and have established a e-mail list on the evolution issue. Recent meetings have concentrated on evolution. They hope to start a campaign soon to attract more members and scientific and professional consultants.
The group’s focus tends more to critical thinking and scientific methodology-the positives. They like to deal more with the pseudosciences rather than the paranormal.
“As long as there’s scientific illiteracy, there will always be a critical mass of pseudoscientific belief,” says Ottawa Skeptics’ Derek Bauer. “I think skepticism in the next ten years might focus less on UFOs etc. and more on the consumer-oriented issues like bogus cures, scams, and pseudomedicine, as well as church-state issues, science education, critical thinking, and how to cut through BS, whether it is science, politics, statistics or other areas. Also the cohesion among groups and within groups should improve, otherwise we risk slow extinction.”