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The Ten Outstanding Skeptics of the Twentieth Century

Article

The Editors

Volume 24.1, January / February 2000

We put that question to an elite group of scholars who should know—the Fellows and Scientific Consultants of CSICOP. The results follow on these pages. We wanted their selections to be free form. We provided no list of names and we offered no suggested criteria. Those they selected could be chosen from any combination of science, scholarship, writing, public education, outreach, investigation, activism, leadership, or other qualities—whatever they found most important. The only restriction was that the person’s major contributions have been made in the twentieth century.

Some cast their votes quite widely, choosing eminent figures from twentieth century science and philosophy. Others focused more on people identified specifically with the skeptical movement. With most it seemed a combination. All this seems fitting. “Skeptic” can be defined in a wide variety of ways. Skepticism is entwined with science and philosophy—and with numerous other fields of scholarship, inquiry, and investigation as well.

Although our main interest was in identifying the 10 outstanding skeptics with a 1 to 10 ranking, the voters were encouraged to list other prominent skeptics beyond just 10 if they wished, and many did so. In this manner, nearly 50 different individuals received at least one vote.

The main interest here is not in ranking people in comparison with each other but to honor and recognize those individuals who are recognized as truly outstanding by their peers. In the pages that follow we present photos and brief profiles of those selected. Comments were also solicited, and some of them are included here.

The 10 Outstanding Skeptics of the Century

  1. James Randi
  2. Martin Gardner
  3. Carl Sagan
  4. Paul Kurtz
  5. Ray Hyman
  6. Isaac Asimov
  7. Philip J. Klass
  8. Bertrand Russell
  9. Harry Houdini
  10. Albert Einstein

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan was the people’s astronomer, the public’s scientist. In a brilliant career foreshortened by death in 1996 at the age of 62, he used his passion for science, intelligence, charisma, and formidable literary and communications skills (The Dragons of Eden won the Pulitzer Prize and it wasn’t even his best book) to turn several generations of young people on to the wonders of science and the rewards of critical thinking. He had a unique talent to inspire wonder and awe at the true mysteries of science while cautioning against bogus science and the temptations of wishful thinking and self-deception. The result was a nearly unparalleled champion of science and skepticism and foe of pseudoscience.

As a professional astronomer he helped shape and articulate the golden age of planetary exploration when we first sent unmanned emissaries to the major planets. His interests in planetary science, the origins of life, and the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence drove his career, but he ranged freely into fields far beyond astronomy. The world was Sagan’s classroom. He believed strongly in democracy and the ability of the common person to appreciate science if portrayed in a clear and legitimately exciting way. His frequent network television appearances, his popular books and articles, and his highly successful Cosmos television series all brought his messages to the masses worldwide. His last book published before his death, The Demon-Haunted World, ranged over late-twentieth-century fringe science and warned of the perils of a public unable to distinguish real science from bogus science. Other noteworthy books: The Cosmic Connection, Cosmos, Broca’s Brain, Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (with Ann Druyan), A Pale Blue Dot, and Billions and Billions.

Other outstanding skeptics who received multiple votes or at least one first-place vote: