25 Years of Science and Skepticism—Part 1 of 2
I could not have known then how true that statement was. Nor how much my going there would change my professional life forever. For the next quarter century (and beyond, I hope), I would be happily caught up in a part of what — for lack of a better term — we might call the international skeptical movement. I prefer to call it scientific skepticism.
“Coincident with the Conference,” the letter went on, “will be formal announcement of formation of a new international ‘Committee to Scientifically Investigate Claims of Paranormal and Other Phenomena.’ This committee is an outgrowth of ‘Objections to Astrology,’ which created worldwide attention when released in The Humanist magazine (Sept./Oct. 1975). The primary thrust of the Committee will be to ‘. . . examine openly, completely, objectively, and carefully . . .’ questionable claims concerning the paranormal and related phenomena, and to publish results of such research. We earnestly invite your consideration to covering this important series of dialectic discussions.”
The letter said all the conference’s Saturday sessions will center on “The New Irrationalisms: Antiscience and Pseudoscience.” It listed some of the participants and included a preprint of a formal announcement of the Committee and a copy of the “Objections to Astrology” statement, signed by 186 leading scientists, including eighteen Nobel laureates.
I was very familiar with that statement. The previous fall, we had published it verbatim, in small type, in Science News (108:166, Sept. 13, 1975), together with a short news article, “Science vs. astrology: New battle, old war.” The statement had immediately generated wide discussion and debate. Said our article, “Unlike many public utterances by large groups of distinguished scientists, the attack on astrology pulls no punches. The statement says the belief that the stars can be used to foretell the future has ‘no scientific foundation’ and bluntly labels astrologers ‘charlatans.’” We spoke at the time with Bart J. Bok, a past president of the American Astronomical Society and lead author of the statement. He told Science News he had become disturbed at the increasing interest in astrology among his freshman students at the University of Arizona and confusion between it and astronomy.
The statement had ignited immediate worldwide controversy. Our news article at the time concluded:
Reaction has been mixed. Astrologers understandably were upset, claiming they had been misunderstood. A Washington Star editorial called the statement “the most futile verbal broadside of recent memory,” but concluded, “we hope it made the scientists feel better.” Bok says most of his mail has been favorable. Whether any minds have been changed remains to be seen. If astrology could survive persecution by the Medieval Church, it is likely to outlive another scholarly blast.
My years at Science News had made me interested in the flip side of science: pseudoscience. In more general terms I was interested in the widespread public interest in fringe-science ideas and the difficulties people have distinguishing what really is legitimate science, especially at its most speculative and fantastic, from equally speculative ideas not anchored in any kind of scientific knowledge or reality. All science editors get letters from readers with new theories of the universe, ideas for new inventions that seem to contradict the laws of physics, and full commentaries on any new speculative ideas reported in science. Some of these come from outright cranks and can be saved in the cranks file or tossed. But many others come from very intelligent people who have a lot of good ideas but don’t quite know enough about how science works to connect them to real science, to research and write them up properly, and to get them tested and evaluated. In either case some evaluative function is needed.
The problem is compounded by whatever seems popular and faddish at the time. In response to readers’ requests we had published three articles in Science News in the mid 1970s that tried to examine in a balanced way some popular claims of the time, one on Transcendental Meditation, one on Uri Geller, one on Kirlian photography. But we weren’t able to do a very good job at them, I’m afraid. I got a letter from Martin Gardner, gently complaining and wondering if we had changed our policy of covering only genuine science. I knew who Martin Gardner was. A decade earlier a physicist friend had given me a copy of Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, and I had devoured it, fascinated with his keen and amusing insights into the underworld of pseudoscientists and crank scientists. And of course he was famous as Scientific American’s Mathematical Games columnist. After getting his letter, I wrote back. I said we hadn’t changed our policies, we were only trying to respond to readers’ interests in finding out what science knew about the topics in question. But I told him that was difficult. Editors like me badly needed a central resource to go to — a group of scientists and other experts interested in these issues but who, like him, had a critical bent and could help us evaluate fringe claims.
The invitation from Buffalo seemed to announce that very thing.
I flew up to Buffalo and covered this founding conference of what became the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). It was one of the most exhilarating times of my life. It was held on the then-brand-new Amherst campus of the State University of New York at Buffalo. It was there I first met and talked with Paul Kurtz (then a SUNY-Buffalo philosophy professor, editor of The Humanist, and co-chairman with Marcello Truzzi of the fledgling committee), James Randi, Philip J. Klass, L. Sprague de Camp, Ray Hyman, Truzzi, philosopher Ernest Nagel, Larry Kusche, and several dozen other prominent participants. At Science News I had covered scientific meetings of many scientific organizations — the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Geophysical Union, Geological Society of America, American Meteorological Society, and others. I had traveled all over and even visited Antarctica and the South Pole. But nothing dealt with people’s deepest interests and emotional passions and intellectual misperceptions as the topics — the new irrationalisms — these scholars and experts were examining. I recently wrote about this founding conference in some detail in my 8,000-word entry on “CSICOP” in the Encyclopedia of the Paranormal (Prometheus 1996), edited by the late Gordon Stein, so won’t go into all the substance of it again here.
I went back to Washington and eventually wrote a three-and-a-third-page Science News cover article, “Science and the Parascience Cults,” subtitled, “How can the public separate fact from myth in the flood of occultism and pseudoscientific theories on the scene today? Help is on the way.” We had an artist do a neat cover illustration of a knight on horseback spearing a multiheaded dragon. The dragon’s heads had symbols for psychic-spoonbending, UFOs, astrology, and the Bermuda Triangle. The cover type was “Challenging Pseudoscience.” It was published May 29, 1976.
Some of the conference participants familiar with the passions these topics raise had warned me to expect a strong reaction to whatever I published, but I was not prepared for what happened. We received more letters to the editor than about any previous Science News article in memory. Most of the writers commented thoughtfully about the issues of science and pseudoscience. But some were upset, and some considered the committee’s effort an attempt by science to squelch mystery, imagination, intuition, and beauty (Paul Kurtz had effectively addressed that very issue at the conference). Two demanded their subscriptions be canceled.
Other national publications, including The New York Times, which published an excellent two-column article, also had been there and covered the conference.
So like the Objections to Astrology statement itself, the founding of CSICOP, although most of the scientific community was supportive, aroused controversy and debate, both thoughtful and heated, among the public and in the media. Much the same can be said about CSICOP’s expanding activities ever since.
In August 1977, CSICOP held a news conference in New York City in conjunction with a meeting of its executive council, the first since the organizing conference. Here too a pattern was established. The committee called the NBC television network to task for credulous pseudodocumentaries on the Bermuda Triangle, Noah’s Ark, and UFOs. It criticized the Reader’s Digest for articles on parapsychology that, said the committee, presented as fact a number of assertions and anecdotes for which there was little or no documentation. The New York Times gave the session a full-column article, “Panel Fears Vogue for the Paranormal” (August 8, 1977). It noted that the committee was appealing to the media of mass communications to provide more balanced and objective treatment of such subjects. It quoted an NBC spokesman about the programs criticized: “They are done as entertainment, not as news. We’re not presenting them as fact.” (This was a response that would become familiar over the years.) The Reader’s Digest could not be reached by the Times science reporter for comment, but later when I wrote an invited feature article for Smithsonian magazine on CSICOP and its battle against pseudoscience ("UFOs, horoscopes, Bigfoot, psychics, and other nonsense,” March 1978), the Reader’s Digest quickly reprinted it in condensed form in all worldwide editions (July 1978).
That August 1977 meeting had been pivotal for me as well. At it I was formally asked to become editor of CSICOP’s journal, then called The Zetetic and subsequently renamed the Skeptical Inquirer, succeeding sociology professor Marcello Truzzi. In those first years it was published only twice a year, and I agreed. I have been editor ever since. We went quarterly with the first issue of volume 3, Fall 1978, and bimonthly (and to regular magazine format from the original digest size) with the January/February 1995 issue. Although the amount of material published annually and the workload have increased over the years, it has been a pleasure.
I feel it a great privilege to be editor all these years of what has become the central international journal of scientific skepticism — the worldwide effort to promote scientific inquiry and critical thinking, to evaluate paranormal and fringe-science claims of all sorts from a scientific viewpoint, and to serve as a forum for informed discussion of all relevant issues.
Psychologists, physicists, philosophers (the three leading disciplines represented), academics in all other areas of university life, science teachers, scientific or investigative journalists and communicators, and informed citizens from many walks of life concerned about all these issues together have formed a strong worldwide community. They may have a wide variety of backgrounds and diverse views and approaches, but this is where they find a common bond, and an outlet for publication and discussion. From the small core group of Executive Council members and founding fellows who helped create the original committee, this effort has expanded multifold and worldwide over and over. In fact, the Skeptical Inquirer draws upon those with knowledge, insight, and expertise on these issues whatever their formal backgrounds, affiliations, memberships, and nationalities. It crosses disciplines, brings the physical and human-based sciences together, works both inside and outside of academia, draws upon investigative expertise wherever it may be found, and addresses issues of passionate concern to the public and of significance to science, education, and public policy. It is a truly democratic, merit-based movement. Its core unifying values are a respect for the creative and evaluative methods of science, reason and rationality, critical thinking and judgment, and freedom of thought and inquiry, all applied to important issues that relate to scientific evidence or scientifically testable claims.
When CSICOP and the Skeptical Inquirer were founded 25 years ago here were four of the hot fringe-science topics that captivated public and media attention (in addition to the big-three perennials of psychics, UFOs, and astrology): Velikovsky, and his fantastic planetary-pinballs, worlds-in-collisions theories to try to explain catastrophic events in biblical times; Erich von Dniken, and his best-selling chariots-of-the-gods theories that ancient astronauts from other worlds had built many of Earth’s ancient monuments; birthdate-based biorhythm theory; and the Bermuda Triangle. All these topics were touted in books that sold millions of copies. Notice something about all these latter issues. You don’t hear much about them anymore. Is this a victory for reason and rationality? Did skepticism prevail? Not really.
Look at some of the hot topics of today: Several scholars in prominent academic positions claim that “intelligent design” instead of the creative processes of evolution is responsible for the intricacies of life. Therapeutic Touch, a hands-waving therapy invoking invisible human energy fields unknown to science, is widely taught in nursing schools. Magnetic forces are assumed to influence health and human performance, so now “magnet therapy” has become a big business. Nineteenth-century spiritualism has been revived in best-selling books and TV programs as modern-day mediums contend they can help you communicate with your long-dead loved ones. Unproven medical remedies, under the attractive-sounding rubric of alternative medicine, have gained a proclaimed public respectability unheard of since the days of snake-oil salesmen. Modern-day numerologists profess to find hidden codes in computer analyses of biblical texts. And we may only now be emerging from a decade-long orgy of accusations and recriminations based on the dubious idea that accurate “repressed memories” of childhood sexual abuse or other horrible past events can be revived through hypnosis and questionable kinds of therapy.
And we still have the big-three: psychics, UFOs, and astrology. With UFOs, for instance, we went through a credulity explosion in the 1980s and early 1990s. Claims of people being abducted by aliens-the hidden memories usually obtained through hypnosis conducted by UFO-abduction proponents-gained widespread popular acceptance. And we simultaneously went through an incredible period in which a series of books by UFO proponents and frequent credulous television programs all proclaimed a government cover-up of a crashed flying saucer near Roswell, New Mexico, in July 1947. Some even claimed alien bodies had been found. These reports gained increasing visibility and credence in the media and public-becoming essentially a modern folk myth. That is, until the past few years when clear evidence was produced that the recovered Roswell debris was actually from a lost assemblage of balloons and instruments launched from Alamogordo, New Mexico, June 4, 1947. These New York University atmospheric sciences experiments were to develop constant-level balloons. These unclassified experiments were in turn part of a top secret project to detect round-the-world acoustic effects of future Soviet nuclear tests. Once these facts were disclosed and confirmed, the responsible media began to back off from the crashed-saucer claim. Nevertheless, the folk myth of a crashed saucer at Roswell will survive.
The point is that specific topics of pseudoscience, fringe-science, and the paranormal do come and go. This is especially the case with those having a strong, charismatic figure associated with them. As long as that larger-than-life personage (Velikovsky was one example, with his silver hair and Old Testament demeanor) is still around writing and promoting his cause, the issue stays alive. Once he or she is gone, it may noticeably diminish, leaving only lesser disciples fighting rear-guard actions for years to come to help keep the light alive. Other topics have their run in the press and among the public, until boredom sets in and some other fad belief emerges.
But while the specific topics come and go, the more general manifestations of fringe-science, pseudoscience, and the paranormal persevere. They arise, over and over again, in new guise, with new language, new clothing, and new proponents. And it is only rational for scientists and skeptics to realize that. Any hope scientists and skeptics may have to abolish from public consciousness nonsense and irrationalisms in the name of science is doomed to failure.
The positive appeal of such stories, the understandable human yearning for having the world the way we want it to be rather than the way it is, the lure of easy cure-all remedies, the appeal of comforting ideas, the search for significance and meaning, the desire for some all-powerful presence to guide our lives or reward good and keep the forces of evil at bay, the childlike attraction to New Age magical thinking, the quest for mystery and the “unknowable,” the hope for everlasting life in some form-all these powerful psychological forces and human needs ensure that new manifestations of paranormal and fringe-science ideas will always have a welcome reception in people’s hearts and minds.