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World Skeptics Congress Draws Over 1200 Participants

Tom Flynn with Tim Gorski

Volume 6.3, September 1996

Amherst, N.Y. — More than twelve hundred skeptics representing some twenty-four countries flocked here for the “twentieth birthday party” of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) on June 20-23. The First World Skeptics Congress was held at the State University of New York at Buffalo’s Amherst Campus and at the nearby Center for Inquiry, world headquarters of CSICOP. Titled “Science in the Age of (Mis)Information,” the congress probed the role of the media in promoting scientific illiteracy and contributing to the spread of pseudoscientific beliefs.

The events began on Thursday, June 20, with a press conference that drew a record media turnout. It was there that conference organizer Paul Kurtz, chair of CSICOP, Kendrick Frazier, editor of Skeptical Inquirer, and many others presented examples of the media’s pandering to pseudoscience. Kurtz announced the formation of CSICOP’s Council for Media Integrity, a new watchdog group that will monitor and respond to media mishandling of the paranormal. “The media have now virtually replaced the schools, colleges, and universities as the main source of information for the general public,” said Kurtz, according to press reports. “If you look at these shows, Unsolved Mysteries, Sightings — there are a whole slew of them — they make it seem as if what they're portraying is real. Yet they don’t provide any scientific evidence.” Kurtz called for either allowing a fair chance for the rebuttal of questionable material or presenting it as fiction.

CSICOP fellow Joe Nickell also made comments that were picked up by the media. With respect to claims of UFO abductions, he was quoted by Ulysses Torassa of the Religious News Service as saying, “I'm now encountering children who believe that they might be abducted by extraterrestrials.” Also quoted by Torassa was Australian skeptic and TV moderator Phillip Adams, who pointed out, "We are seeing a new delivery system for pathological states of mind.”

The congress itself opened formally with remarks by Erie County (New York) Executive Dennis Gorski and a performance of selected movements from Gustav Holst’s The Planets by the Buffalo Philharmonic Ensemble. This performance was accompanied by a special video production based on NASA images of the planets, for which the suite’s movements are named, refocusing The Planets from the composer’s original astrological conception of the work.

Milton Rosenberg, Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago and longtime radio moderator, chaired the meeting’s first plenary session, “The Role of the Mass Media in (Mis)Informing the Public.” Panelists included George Gerbner, Professor of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania; Piero Angela, Italian TV journalist; Phillip Adams, Australian columnist and TV moderator; and John Allen Paulos, Temple University Professor of Mathematics and author of Innumeracy. Nationally known radio commentator on medical subjects Dr. Dean Edell also participated by live radio feed as part of his syndicated radio show which airs on several hundred stations. In what was perhaps the congress’s only misstep, one of the panelists onstage mistook Edell’s scheduled participation as an interruption in the program and criticized Edell for disturbing the proceedings. The error was redressed minutes later when Paul Kurtz appeared on Edell’s program by telephone for about six minutes clarifying what had happened and outlining CSICOP’s call for heightened media responsibility, a call which Edell himself has long advocated.

The Conference Address, “A Strategy for Saving Science,” was delivered Thursday evening by Leon Lederman, Nobel laureate in physics and Director Emeritus of Fermilab.

The congress resumed Friday with a plenary session entitled “The Growth of Anti-Science,” chaired by John Maddox, former editor of Nature. The participants included Paul R. Gross, director of the Center for Advanced Studies; Norman Levitt, Professor of Mathematics at Rutgers University; Susan Haack, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami; and Victor Stenger, Professor of Physics at the University of Hawaii.

SI editor Ken Frazier and X-Files creator Chris Carter.

Skeptical Inquirer editor Ken Frazier and X-Files creator Chris Carter.

A luncheon address was given by Chris Carter, creator of the Fox TV series The X-Files. Carter defended his series against critics who say he promotes paranormal beliefs. He claimed that the series is meant solely to entertain and should actually heighten, rather than dull, viewers’ skepticism. But at least some congress participants doubted such an optimistic assessment of the program’s effects.

The afternoon was devoted to concurrent sessions. One session was on UFOlogy, given by Philip J. Klass, James McGaha, and Robert Sheaffer. Another program dealing with astrology was given by Cornelis de Jager, J.W. Nienhuys, and Ivan Kelly, while homeopathy was considered by Wim Betz and James “The Amazing” Randi. Vern Bullough, Bela Scheiber, and Dale Beyerstein examined therapeutic touch. Prominent anti-health-fraud activist and author Dr. Stephen Barrett discussed chiropractic. And National Center for Science Education Executive Director Eugenie Scott and Professor of Anthropology H. James Birx looked at the evolution/creationism controversy.

The Keynote Address was given by Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who drew (according to one local media estimate) some two thousand persons to an illustrated lecture on Darwin, evolutionary theory, and the role of skepticism in forming and evaluating hypotheses.

Saturday opened with a plenary session titled “Parapsychology: Recent Developments.” This session was chaired by James Alcock, Professor of Psychology at York University in Canada, and featured: Ray Hyman, University of Oregon Professor of Psychology; Richard Wiseman, University of Hertfordshire (U.K.) Professor of Psychology; Jessica Utts, University of California-Davis Professor of Statistics; and Stanley Jeffers, York University Professor of Physics and Astronomy. The focal point of this session was the disagreement over interpretation of laboratory studies of parapsychology by Hyman and Utts, who had come to contradictory conclusions after analyzing data from the U.S. government’s Stargate project. Utts believes that meta-analysis has clearly proven the existence of some sort of cognitive anomaly such as psi, so that further research should be aimed at probing its nature rather than multiplying efforts to establish its existence. Hyman believes that the existing studies are generally so flawed that they do not constitute proof of any anomaly, so that the existence of psi remains a very open question and one clouded by more than a century of laboratory failures to isolate a replicable psychic phenomenon.

John Maddox, emeritus editor of Nature, spoke on the importance of the scientific method at a gala luncheon at The Center for Inquiry, located across the street from the State University of New York at Buffalo’s Amherst Campus.

Saturday’s concurrent sessions included “Mechanisms of Self-Deception” by Barry Beyerstein, Thomas Gilovich, and John Schumaker; “Alternative Health Cures” with Jack Raso and Wallace Sampson; “Philosophy and Pseudoscience” with Paul Kurtz, Daisie M. Radner, Lewis Vaughn, Theodore Schick, and Tim Trachet; "Psychoanalytic Therapy and Theory After 100 Years” with Adolf Grunbaum; "Critical Thinking in Education” with John Kearns, Clyde Herreid, Lee Nisbet, Carol Tavris, and John Corcoran; “Spiritualism and the University at Buffalo Expose” with Joe Nickell and Gordon Stein; and “The Paranormal in China” with Chinese skeptics Madame Shen Zhenyu, Lin Zixin, Sima Nan, Zu Shu-Xian, and Guo Zhenyi.

The last two of the above-mentioned sessions were of special interest. For as it happens the University of Buffalo (UB), a precursor of SUNY at Buffalo, was celebrating its 150th anniversary during the congress, and one of the first "extracurricular” activities undertaken by UB faculty a century and a half ago was one of the earliest scientific examinations of the Fox Sisters, three young women whose floor-tapping activities launched nineteenth-century spiritualism. The UB investigators succeeded in partially unmasking the Fox Sisters’ fakery, an expose which was, tragically, insufficiently noted at the time. In later life, the sisters themselves confessed to having been frauds.

The session on paranormalism in China, meanwhile, represents the latest fruit of a long and productive relationship between CSICOP and pro-scientific persons and organizations inside mainland China. The session also included a report by members of the CSICOP delegation to China, which recently returned from an expedition of fact-finding and investigation of Chinese paranormal claims.

Stephen Jay Gould accepts the Isaac Asimov Award from new Executive Council Member Eugenie Scott.

Stephen Jay Gould accepts the CSICOP “Isaac Asimov Award” from new CSICOP Executive Council Member Eugenie Scott.

Leon Lederman accepts the In Praise of Reason Award from astronomer Cornelis de Jager.

Leon Lederman accepts the CSICOP “In Praise of Reason Award” from astronomer Cornelis de Jager.

An awards banquet followed Saturday’s sessions at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Buffalo. CSICOP bestowed the Isaac Asimov Award upon Stephen Jay Gould. The In Praise of Reason Award was presented to Leon Lederman; the Public Education in Science Award to Dr. Dean Edell, who accepted via videotape; and the Distinguished Skeptic Award to James “The Amazing” Randi. The Distinguished Skeptic/Lifetime Achievement Award was given to talk-show host, humorist, author, and general Renaissance man Steve Allen, and the Responsibility in Journalism Award went to Phillip Adams, Piero Angela, and Pierre Berton. The banquet was also marked by news that independent astronomical working groups had succeeded in naming asteroids for Paul Kurtz and CSICOP. The CSICOP asteroid ended up being named “Skepticus” after concerns were aired among astronomers that people might not know how to say “Csicop.” Steve Allen, author, entertainer, and creator of the original Tonight Show, provided entertainment at the banquet.

Sunday’s session was devoted to a three-hour “World Skeptics Update” in which leaders of skeptical groups from across the globe described the situations in their home countries. Participants included Tim Trachet (Belgium), Mario Mendez Acosta (Mexico), Amardeo Sarma (Germany), Michael Hutchinson (UK), Miguel Angel Sabadel (Spain), Henry Gordon (Canada), Stephen Basser (Australia), Lin Zixin (China), Massimo Polidoro (Italy), Cornelis de Jager (Netherlands), Valery Kuvakin (Russia), Rudolf Czelnai (Hungary), Premanand (India), and Sanal Edamaruku (India).

The congress attracted unprecedented media coverage, including partial coverage on C-Span. In addition, National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation: Science Friday” program made a rare trip out of the studio to originate from the congress site with host Ira Flatow. The congress was also distinguished by the raising of more than $200,000 toward the “Fund for the Future” campaign, a $20 million Center for Inquiry program and endowment fund. Congress proceedings are now available on audiotape.