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Science Always Trumps Pseudoscience - and a Still Broader Mission for SI

From the Editor

Kendrick Frazier

Volume 28.1, January / February 2004

I write on deadline just after the CSICOP Conference “Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias” in Albuquerque. Like the others before it, it was well-attended, lively, and invigorating-even inspiring. We'll have a report or two about the presentations in our next issue. But the conference talks, our Executive Council meeting, a new generation of young speakers at the development luncheon, social interactions-and the fact that we're starting in on a new year, 2004-stimulated a few thoughts of my own I want to share.

One, skeptical inquiry is darned fun. Speaker after speaker clearly revealed that they enjoy what they do-investigating/evaluating bizarre claims, revealing how the claims don't meet criteria for good evidence, showing what good science has to offer as an alternative.

Two, a new generation of skeptical inquirers is in place. More about this in our coming reports, but previous concerns that no one is stepping up to succeed those who founded the modern skeptical movement more than a quarter century ago are unwarranted. At universities, on new Web sites, and throughout our own expanding Center for Inquiry/CSICOP staff and proliferating CFI centers, fine young investigators and articulate spokesmen for science and skepticism are on the job. That’s refreshing to see.

Third, I think CSICOP and the Skeptical Inquirer can take some credit for what some see as possibly a diminishing popular interest in things “paranormal.” There’s evidence that classic paranormal topics don't excite the same uncritical popular appeal they once did, and that may well be due in part to the efforts of those who have worked so hard over the past three decades to reveal the foolishness and fallacies. That doesn't mean popular interest has gone away. It is hasn't and it never will. But some of the older topics are now passé, and language, terms, and topics shift and adapt. We'll shift and adapt with them, and stay on top in the investigative/evaluative wars.

Fourth, there is no longer cause for any profound sense of isolation on the part of science-minded skeptical inquirers and people who don't share society’s various religious enthusiasms. The skeptical and humanist movements have proliferated, spread, even merged some to share resources, groups, and publications (did you know CFI-International in Amherst, New York, where CSICOP is headquartered, now publishes seventeen periodicals?). New regional centers, new skeptical Web sites are everywhere.

And that brings me to my fifth point, related to the one above, but even more general. If we ever get into a funk about society’s inability to distinguish good science from pseudoscience, because we deal with the latter down here in the trenches all the time, we need to realize that good science is an overwhelming force of its own, (mostly) unaffected by popular nonsense, and it is everywhere.

In addition to everything we do in scientific skepticism -

Every issue of Science, Nature, Scientific American, Science News, New Scientist, Discover, and Science et Vie is a repudiation of pseudoscience.

Every PBS Nova television show and countless others on the Discovery channel and elsewhere are repudiations of pseudoscience.

Every hallway discussion where scientists and engineers exchange ideas for the meaning of their latest data, how to assess its validity or understand its contradictions, how to rule out certain hypotheses, how to peel away the next layer of mystery is a repudiation of pseudoscience.

The same is true of—

Every spacecraft mission to the planets and their moons, every astronomical observation with modern instruments, every airplane flight, every medical diagnosis and procedure based on modern medicine are validations of good scientific understanding and a repudiation of pseudoscience.

Good science is everywhere, and pseudoscience is no match for it and never will be. It may not seem that way sometimes to those of us who have chosen to fight the nonsense that seems so often to infect the public, but good science is pervasive. And, in general, most people support it, appreciate it, fund it through their taxes, benefit from its advances, and even find some occasional inspiration from television and newspaper reports of some of its discoveries.

So there is always great cause for optimism to help counter our occasional and understandable pessimistic moments. Scientific discovery is the great engine of social change, and it motivates and inspires. On the other hand, scientific advances also continually present new social challenges, often advancing quickly into new areas that overwhelm our own human abilities to cope, socially, morally, and philosophically.

CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer plan to deal increasingly with these kinds of matters. We hope to find ways to focus on some of the wonderful new achievements of science as a counterbalance in our pages to the popularly appealing but content-free and intellectually sterile fringe-sciences and pseudosciences. At the same time we hope to deal more and more with some of the practical, social, and philosophical implications of science, as scientific discoveries open whole new troubling questions and issues that we humans have never before had to face.

All this comes under that second, more general sentence of our statement of mission that appears on the back page of every issue of the Skeptical Inquirer: CSICOP “also promotes science and scientific inquiry, critical thinking, science education, and the use of reason in examining important issues.” That’s really what we're all about. In addition to continuing to be the leading forum for critical investigation of paranormal and fringe-science claims-we'll never stop being that-we will look for new ways to promote the scientific outlook and talk about some of science’s incredible achievements. We want to examine more issues of broad social import that involve science and technology, not duplicating the efforts of other publications but wherever we see an opportunity for science, reason, and critical inquiry to play a useful role.

I look forward to this new, broader mission and hope you do too.

It should be fun.

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Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.