About two kinds of inquiry: “National Enquirer” and “The Skeptical Inquirer”
by Douglas R. Hofstadter
“Baffled Investigators and Educators Disclose ... BOY CAN SEE WITH HIS EARS”
“A Cross between Human Beings and Plants ... SCIENTISTS ON VERGE OF CREATING PLANT PEOPLE ... Bizarre Creatures Could Do Anything You Want”
“Alien from Space Shares Woman’s Mind and Body, Hypnosis Reveals”
-Headlines from National Enquirer
Did the child you once were ever wonder why the declarative sentences in comic books always ended with exclamation points? Were all those statements really that startling? Were the characters saying them really that thrilled? Of course not. Those exclamation points were a psychological gimmick put there purely for the sake of appearance, to give the story more pizzazz.
National Enquirer, one of this country’s yellowest and purplest journalistic institutions, uses a similar gimmick. Whenever it prints a headline trumpeting the discovery of some bizarre, hitherto unheard-of phenomenon, instead of ending it with an exclamation point it ends it (or begins it) with a reference to “baffled investigators,” “bewildered scientists” or similarly stumped savants. It is an ornament put there to make the story seem to have more credibility.
Or is it? What do the editors really want? That the story appear credible or that it appear incredible? It seems they want it both ways: they want the story to sound as outlandish as possible and they want it to have the appearance of authenticity. Their ideal headline should thus embody a contradiction: impossibility coupled with certainty. In short, confirmed nonsense.
What can one make of headlines such as the ones printed above? Or of the fact that this publication is sold by the millions every week in grocery stores, and that people gobble up its stories as voraciously as they do potato chips? Or of the fact that when they are through with it, they can turn to plenty of other junk food for thought: National Examiner, Star, Globe, Weekly World News. What do you think?
Your first reaction is probably to chuckle and dismiss such stories as being silly. But how do you know they are silly? Do you also think that is a silly question? What do you think about articles that are printed in this magazine? Do you trust them? What is the difference? Is it simply a difference in publishing style? Is the tabloid format with its gaudy pictures and sensationalistic headlines enough to make you distrust National Enquirer? But wait a minute. Is that not begging the question? What kind of argument is it when you use the guilty verdict as part of the case for the prosecution? What you need is a way of telling objectively what you mean by “gaudy” or “sensationalistic.” That could prove to be difficult.
And what about the obverse of the coin? Is it the rather dignified, traditional format of Scientific American–its lack of photographs of celebrities, for example-that convinces you it is to be trusted? If it is, that is a curious way of making decisions about what truth is. It would seem that your concept of truth is closely tied in with your way of evaluating the “style” of a channel of communication, surely quite an intangible notion.
Having said that, I must admit I too rely constantly on quick assessments of style in my attempt to sift the true from the false, the believable from the unbelievable. I could not tell you what criteria I rely on without first thinking about it for a long time and writing many pages. Even then, if I were to publish the definitive guide (How to Tell the True from the False by Its Style of Publication), it would have to be published to do any good, and its title, not to mention the style it was published in, would probably attract a few readers but would undoubtedly repel many more.
Well, truth being this elusive, no wonder people are besieged with competing voices in print. When I was younger, I believed once something had been discovered, verified and published it was part of Knowledge: definitive, accepted and irrevocable.
To my surprise, however, I found that the truth has to fight constantly for its life. That an idea has been discovered and printed in a “reputable journal” does not ensure that it will become well known and accepted. In fact, usually it will have to be rephrased and reprinted many different times, often by many different people, before it has any chance of taking hold. This is upsetting to an idealist such as me, someone more disposed to believe in the notion of a monolithic and absolute truth than in the notion of a pluralistic and relative truth. The idea that the truth has to fight for its life is a sad discovery. The idea that the truth will not out, unless it is given a lot of help, is upsetting.
A question arises in every society: Is it better to let all the different voices battle it out or to have just a few “official” publications dictate what is the case and what is not? Our society has opted for a plurality of voices, for a “marketplace of ideas,” for a complete free-for-all of conflicting theories. But if it is this chaotic, who will ensure that there is law and order? Who will guard truth? The answer is: CSICOP will!
CSICOP? What is CSICOP? Some kind of cop who guards the truth? That’s pretty close. CSICOP stands for Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. It is a rather esoteric title for an organization whose purpose is not so esoteric: to apply common sense to claims of the outlandish, the implausible and the unlikely.
Who are the people who form CSICOP and what do they do together? The organization was the brainchild of Paul Kurtz, professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, who brought it into being because he thought there was a need to counter the rising tide of irrational beliefs and to provide the public with a more balanced treatment of claims of the paranormal by presenting the dissenting scientific viewpoint. Among the early fellows of CSICOP were some of America’s most distinguished philosophers (for example Ernest Nagel and W. Y. Quine) and other colorful combatants of the occult, such as psychologist Ray Hyman, magician James Randi and someone readers of this column may have heard of: Martin Gardner. In the first few meetings it was decided that the committee’s principal function would be to publish a magazine dedicated to the subtle art of debunking. Perhaps “debunking” is not the term they would have chosen, but it fits. The magazine they began to publish in the fall of 1976 was The Zetetic. from the Greek for “inquiring skeptic.”
As happens with many fledgling movements, a philosophical squabble developed between two factions, one more “relativist” and unjudgmental, the other more firmly opposed to nonsense, more willing to go on the offensive and to attack supernatural claims. Strange to say, the open-minded faction was not so open-minded as to accept the opposing point of view, and the rift opened wider. Eventually there was a schism. The relativist faction (one member) started publishing his own journal, The Zetetic Scholar, in which science and pseudoscience coexist happily. The larger faction retained the name CSICOP and changed the title of its journal to The Skeptical Inquirer.
The purpose of The Skeptical Inquirer is simply to combat nonsense. It does so by recourse to common sense, which means it is accessible to anyone who can read English. It does not require any special knowledge or training to read its pages, where nonsensical claims are routinely smashed to smithereens. (Sometimes the claims are as blatantly silly as the headlines at the beginning of this article, sometimes they are much subtler.) All that is required to read this maverick journal is curiosity about the nature of truth: curiosity about how truth defends itself (through its agent CSICOP) against attacks from all quarters by unimaginably imaginative theorizers, speculators, eccentrics, crackpots and out-and-out fakers.
The journal has grown from its original small number of subscribers to roughly 7,500–a David compared with the Goliaths mentioned above, with their circulations in the millions. Its pages are filled with lively and humorous writing-the combat of ideas in its most enjoyable form. The journal is by no means a monolithic voice, an advocate of a single dogma. Rather, it is itself a marketplace of ideas. Even people who wield the tool of common sense with skill may do so with different styles, and sometimes they will disagree.
There is something of a paradox involved in the editorial decisions in such a magazine. After all, what is under debate here is in essence the nature of correct arguments. What should be accepted and what should not? To caricature the situation, imagine the editorial dilemmas that journals with titles such as Free Press Bulletin, The Open Mind or Editorial Policy Newsletter would encounter. What letters to the editor should be printed? What articles? What policy can be invoked to screen material submitted?
These are not easy questions to answer. They involve a paradox, a tangle in which the ideas being evaluated are also the ideas doing the evaluating. The only recourse is to common sense, that rock-bottom basis of all rationality. Unfortunately we have no foolproof algorithm to uniquely characterize that deepest layer of rationality, nor are we likely to come up with one soon. For now the core of rationality must depend on inscrutables: the simple, the elegant, the intuitive. This paradox has existed throughout intellectual history, but in our information-rich times it seems particularly troublesome.
In spite of such epistemological puzzles, which are connected to its very reason for existence, The Skeptical Inquirer is flourishing and provides a refreshing antidote to the jargon-laden journals of science, which often seem curiously irrelevant to the concerns of everyday life. In that one way the Inquirer resembles the scandalous tabloids.
The list of topics covered in the 17 issues that have appeared so far is remarkably diverse. Some topics come up only once, others come up regularly and are discussed from various angles and at various depths. Some of the more commonly discussed topics are ESP, telekinesis (using mental power to influence events at a distance), astrology, biorhythms, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, UFO’s, creationism, telepathy, remote viewing, clairvoyant detectives who allegedly solve crimes, the Bermuda and other triangles, “thoughtography” (using mental power to create images on film), the supposed extraterrestrial origin of life on the earth, Carlos Castaneda’s sorcerer “Don Juan,” pyramid power, psychic surgery and faith healing, Scientology, predictions by famous “psychics,” spooks and spirits and haunted houses, levitation, palmistry and mind reading, unorthodox anthropological theories, plant perception, perpetual-motion machines, water witching and other kinds of dowsing, bizarre cattle mutilations. And these are by no means the only topics; they are just the regulars.
There are quite a few frequent contributors, such as Randi, who is truly prolific. Among others are aeronautics writer Philip J. Klass, UFO specialist James E. Oberg, writer Isaac Asimov, CSICOP’S founder (and current chairman) Kurtz, psychologist James E. Alcock, educator Elmer Kral, anthropologist Laurie Godfrey, science writer Robert Sheaffer, sociologist William Sims Bainbridge and many others. And the magazine’s editor, Kendrick Frazier, a freelance science writer by trade, periodically issues eloquent and mordant commentaries.
There is no better way to impart the flavor of the magazine than to quote a few selections from articles. One of my favorite articles appeared in the second issue (Spring/Summer, 1977). It is by psychologist Ray Hyman (who incidentally, like many other authors in The Skeptical Inquirer, is also a talented magician), and is titled “‘Cold Reading’: How to Convince Strangers that You Know All about Them.”
It begins with a discussion of a course Hyman taught about the various ways people are manipulated. Hyman states: “I invited various manipulators to demonstrate their techniques-pitchmen, encyclopedia salesmen, hypnotists, advertising experts, evangelists, confidence men and a variety of individuals who dealt with personal problems. The techniques which we discussed, especially those concerned with helping people with their personal problems, seem to involve the client’s tendency to find more meaning in any situation than is actually there, Students readily accepted this explanation when it was pointed out to them. But I did not feel that they fully realized just how pervasive and powerful this human tendency to make sense out of nonsense really is.”
Then Hyman describes people’s willingness to believe what others tell them about themselves. His “golden rule” is: “To be popular with your fellow man, tell him what he wants to hear. He wants to hear about himself. So tell him about himself. But not what you know to be true about him. Oh, no! Never tell him the truth. Rather, tell him what he would like to be true about himself!” As an example, Hyman cites the following passage (which, by a remarkable coincidence, was written about none other than you, dear reader!):
“Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary and reserved. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept others’ opinions without satisfactory proof. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. Disciplined and controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside.
“Your sexual adjustment has presented some problems for you. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a strong need for other people to like you and for them to admire you.”
Pretty good fit, eh? Hyman comments: “The statements in this stock spiel were first used in 1948 by Bertram Forer in a classroom demonstration of personal validation. He obtained most of them from a newsstand astrology book. Forer’s students, who thought the sketch was uniquely intended for them as a result of a personality test, gave the sketch an average rating of 4.26 on a scale of 0 (poor) to 5 (perfect). As many as 16 out of his 39 students (41 percent) rated it as a perfect fit to their personality. Only five gave it a rating below 4 (the worst being a rating of 2, meaning ‘average’). Almost 30 years later students give the same sketch an almost identical rating as a unique description of themselves.”
Hyman gives a 13-point recipe for becoming a cold reader. Among his tips are these: “Use the technique of ‘fishing’ [getting the subject to tell you about himself or herself, then rephrasing it and feeding it back]; always give the impression that you know more than you are saying; don’t be afraid to flatter your subject every chance you get.” This deliciously cynical recipe for becoming a character reader is presented in considerable detail, presumably not to convert readers of the article into charlatans and tricksters but to show them how such manipulations are achieved.
Hyman asks: “Why does it work so well? It does not help to say that people are gullible or suggestible. Nor can we dismiss it by implying that some individuals are just not sufficiently discriminating or lack sufficient intelligence to see through it. Indeed, one can argue that it requires a certain degree of intelligence on the part of a client for the reading to work well…. We have to bring our knowledge and expectations to bear in order to comprehend anything in our world. In most ordinary situations this use of context and memory enables us to correctly interpret statements and supply the necessary inferences to do this. But this powerful mechanism can go astray in situations where there is no actual message being conveyed. Instead of picking up random noise we still man: age to find meaning in the situation. So the same system that enables us to creatively find meanings and to make new discoveries also makes us extremely vulnerable to exploitation by all sorts of manipulators. In the case of the cold reading the manipulator may be conscious of his deception; but often he too is a victim of personal validation.”
(Hyman knows whereof he speaks. Many years ago he was convinced for a time that he himself had genuine powers to read palms, until one day he tried telling people the exact opposite of what their palms told him and found they still swallowed his line as much as ever. Then he began to suspect that the plasticity of the human mind–particularly his own–was doing some strange things.)
At the beginning of each issue of The Skeptical Inquirer is a feature called “News and Comment.” It covers such things as the latest reports on current sensational claims, recently broadcast television shows for and against the paranormal, lawsuits of one kind or another and so on. One of the most amusing items was the coverage in the Fall 1980 issue of the “Uri Awards,” given out by Randi (on April I, of course) to various deserving souls who had done the most to promote gullibility and irrational beliefs. Each award consists of “a tastefully bent stainless-steel spoon with a very transparent, very flimsy base.” Award winners were notified, Randi explained, by telepathy, and they were “free to announce their winning in advance, by precognition, if they so desired.” Awards were made in four categories: Academic (“to the scientist who says the dumbest thing about parapsychology”), Funding (“to the funding organization that awards the most money for the dumbest things in parapsychology”), Performance (“to the psychic who, with the least talent, takes in the most people”), and Media (“to the news organization that supports the most outrageous claims of the paranormalists”).
The nature of coincidences is a recurrent theme in discussions of the paranormal. I vividly remember a passage in a lovely book by Warren Weaver titled Lady Luck: The Theory of Probability, in which he points out that in many situations the most likely outcome may well be a very unlikely event (as it is when you deal hands in bridge, where whatever hand you get is bound to be extraordinarily rare no matter what it is). A similar point is made in the following excerpt from a recent book by David Marks and Richard Kammann titled The Psychology of the Psychic (from which various excerpts were reprinted in one issue of The Skeptical Inquirer):
“First, we notice and remember matches, especially oddmatches, whenever they occur. (Because a psychic anecdote first requires a match, and, second, an oddity between the match and our beliefs, we call these stories oddmatches. This is equivalent to the common expression, an ‘unexplained coincidence.’) Second, we do not notice non-matches. Third, our failure to notice nonevents creates the short-run illusion that makes the oddmatch seem improbable. Fourth, we are poor at estimating combinations of events. Fifth, we overlook the principle of equivalent oddmatches, that one coincidence is as good as another as far as psychic theory is concerned.”
An excellent example of people not noticing nonevents is provided by the failed predictions of famed psychics (such as Jeane Dixon). Most people never go back to see how the events bore out the predictions. The Skeptical Inquirer, however, has a tradition of going back and checking. As each year concludes it prints a number of predictions made by various psychics for that year and then evaluates their track record. In the Fall 1980 issue the editors took the predictions of 100 “top psychics,” tabulated them, listed the top 12 in order of frequency and left it to the reader to assess the accuracy of psychic visions of the future. The No. 1 prediction for 1979 (made by 86 psychics) was “Longer lives will be had for almost everyone as aging is brought under control.” No.2 (85 psychics) was “There will be a major breakthrough in cancer, which will almost totally wipe out the disease.” No.3 (also 85) was “There will be an astonishing spiritual rebirth and a return to the old values.” So it went. No.6 (81 psychics) was “Contact will be made with aliens from space, who will give us incredible knowledge.”
There is something pathetic, even desperate, about these predictions. One can see only too clearly the similarity of the publications that feature these predictions to inane television shows such as “Fantasy Island” and “Star Trek.” The common denominator is escape from reality. The point is well made in an article by William Sims Bainbridge in the Fall 1979 issue of The Skeptical Inquirer. Perhaps we all have a desire to dilute reality with fantasy, to make reality seem simpler and also more aligned with what we wish it were. Yet at the same time perhaps all of us have the potential capacity and even the desire to sift sense from nonsense, if only we are introduced to the distinction in a sufficiently compelling manner.
But how can this be done? In the “News and Comment” section of the Spring 1980 issue of The Skeptical Inquirer there was an item about a lively traveling antipseudoscience lecture act by “Captain Ray of Light,” actually Douglas F. Stalker, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Delaware. The article quotes Stalker on his “comical debunking” show (directed at astrology, biorhythms, numerology, UFO’s, pyramid power, psychic claims and the like) as follows:
“For years I lectured against them in a serious way, with direct charges at their silly theories. These direct attacks didn’t change many minds, and so I decided to take an indirect approach. If you can’t beat them, join them. And so I did, in a manner of speaking. I constructed some plainly preposterous pseudosciences of my own and showed that they were just like astrology and the others. I also explained how you could construct more of these silly theories. By working from the inside out, more students came to see how pseudo these pseudosciences are .... And that is the audience I try to reach: the upcoming group of citizens. My show reaches them in the right way, too. It leaves a lasting impression; it wins friends and changes minds.” (I am pleased to report that Stalker welcomes new bookings. He can be reached at the Department of Philosophy, University of Delaware, Newark, Del. 19711.)
One of the points Stalker makes is that no matter how eloquent a lecture may be it simply does not have the power to convince that experience does. The point has been well brought out in a classic study made by Barry Singer and Victor A. Benassi of the psychology department of California State University at Long Beach. These two investigators set out to determine the effect on first-year psychology students of seemingly paranormal effects created in the classroom by an exotically dressed magician. Their findings were reported in the Winter 1980/81 issue of The Skeptical Inquirer in a piece titled “Fooling Some of the People All of the Time.”
In two of the classes the performer (Craig Reynolds) was introduced as a graduate student “interested in the psychology of paranormal or psychic abilities [who has] been working on developing a presentation of his psychic abilities.” The instructor also explicitly stated, “I’m not convinced personally of Craig’s or anyone else’s psychic abilities.” In two other classes Craig was introduced as a graduate student “interested in the psychology of magic and stage trickery [who has] been working on developing a presentation of his magic act.” The authors emphasize that all the stunts Craig performed are “easy amateur tricks that have been practiced for centuries and are even explained in children’s books of magic.”
After the act the students were asked to report their reactions. Singer and Benassi received two jolts from the reports: “First ... in both the ‘magic’ and the ‘psychic’ classes, about two-thirds of the students clearly believed Craig was psychic. Only a few students seemed to believe the instructor’s description of Craig as a magician in the two classes where he was introduced as such. Secondly, psychic belief was not only prevalent; it was strong and loaded with emotion. A number of students covered their papers with exorcism terms and exhortations against the Devil. In the psychic condition 18 percent of the students explicitly expressed fright and emotional disturbance. Most expressed awe and amazement.
“We were present at two of Craig’s performances and witnessed some extreme behavior. By the time Craig was halfway through the ‘bending’ chant [part of a stunt where he bent a stainless steel rod], the class was in a terribly excited state. Students sat rigidly in their chairs, eyes glazed and mouths open, chanting together. When the rod bent, they gasped and murmured. After class was dismissed, they typically sat still in their chairs, staring vacantly or shaking their heads, or rushed excitedly up to Craig, asking him how they could develop such powers. We felt we were observing an extraordinarily powerful behavioral effect. If Craig had asked the students at the end of his act to tear off their clothes, throw him money and start a new cult, we believe some would have responded enthusiastically. Obviously, something was going on here that we didn’t understand.”
After this dramatic presentation the classes were told they had only been seeing tricks. In fact, two more classes were given the same presentation, with the added warning: “In his act Craig will pretend to read minds and demonstrate psychic abilities, but Craig does not really have psychic abilities, and what you’ll be seeing are really only tricks.” In spite of this forewarning more than half of the students in these classes believed he was psychic. “This says either something about the status of university instructors with their students or something about the strange pathways people take to occult belief,” Singer and Benassi observe philosophically.
Now comes something astonishing. “The next question asked was whether magicians could do exactly what Craig did. Virtually all the students agreed that magicians could. They were then asked if they would like to revise their estimate of Craig’s psychic abilities in the light of this negative information that they themselves had furnished. Only a few did, reducing the percentage of students believing that Craig had psychic powers to 55 percent.
“Next the students were asked to estimate how many people who performed stunts such as Craig’s and claimed to be psychic were actually fakes using magician’s tricks. The consensus was that at least three out of four ‘psychics’ were in fact frauds. After supplying this negative information, they were again asked if they wished to revise their estimate of Craig’s psychic abilities. Again, only a few did, reducing the percentage believing that Craig had psychic powers to 52 percent.”
Singer and Benassi muse: “What does all this add up to? The results from our paper-and-pencil test suggest that people can stubbornly maintain a belief about someone’s psychic powers when they know better. It is a logical fallacy to admit that tricksters can perform exactly the same stunts as real psychics and to estimate that most so-called psychics are frauds and at the same time maintain with a fair degree of confidence that any given example (Craig) is psychic. Are we humans really that foolish? Yes.”
A few years ago Scot Morris (now a senior editor of Omni in charge of its “Games” department) carried out a similar experiment in a first-year psychology class at Southern Illinois University, which he wrote up in the Spring 1980 issue of The Skeptical Inquirer. First Morris assessed his students’ beliefs in ESP by having them fill out a questionnaire. Then a colleague performed an “ESP demonstration,” which Morris calls “frighteningly impressive.”
After this performance Morris tried to “deprogram” his students. He had two weapons at his disposal. One is what he calls “dehoaxing.” This process, lasting for only three minutes, consisted in revealing how two of the three tricks worked, together with a confession that the remaining one of the baffling stunts was also a trick, “but,” said Morris, “I’m not going to say how it was done, because I want you to experience the feeling that, even though you can’t explain something, that doesn’t make it supernatural.” The other weapon was a 50- minute anti-ESP lecture, in which secrets of professional mind readers were revealed, commonsense estimates of probabilities of “oddmatches” were discussed, “scientific” studies of ESP were shown to be questionable for various statistical and logical reasons and some other everyday reasons were adduced to cast ESP’s reality into strong doubt.
After the performance only half of the classes were dehoaxed but all of them heard the anti-ESP lecture. The students were then polled about the strength of their belief in various kinds of paranormal phenomena. It turned out that dehoaxed classes had a far lower belief in ESP than classes that had simply heard the anti-ESP lecture. The dehoaxed classes’ average level of ESP belief dropped from nearly 6 (moderate belief) to about 2 (strong disbelief), whereas the nondehoaxed classes’ average level dropped from 6 to about 4 (slight disbelief). As Morris summarizes this surprising result, “the dehoaxing experience was apparently crucial; a three-minute revelation that they had been fooled was more powerful than an hour-long denunciation of ESP in producing skepticism toward ESP.”
One of Morris’ original interests in conducting the experiment was “whether the exercise would teach the students skepticism for ESP statements only, or a more general attitude of skepticism, as we had hoped. For example, would their experience also make them more skeptical of astrology, Ouija boards and ghosts?” Morris did find a slight transfer of skepticism, and from it he concluded hopefully that “teaching someone to be skeptical of one belief makes him somewhat more skeptical of similar beliefs, and perhaps slightly more skeptical even of dissimilar beliefs.”
This question of transfer of skepticism is to my mind the critical one. It is of little use to learn a lesson if that lesson always remains a lesson about particulars and has no applicability beyond the case in which it was first learned. What, for instance, was the lesson of the Jonestown incident? Simply that you should never follow Jim Jones to Guyana? Or, more generally, that you should be wary of following any guru halfway across the world? Or that you should never follow anyone anywhere? Or that all cults are evil? Or that any belief in any kind of savior, human or divine, is crazy and dangerous? Is it likely that fundamentalist “Moral Majority” Christians in America would see their attitudes reflected in those of fundamentalist Moslems whose fanaticism they abhor, and that they would therefore be led to renounce their own fanaticism? Why not? At what level of generality is a lesson learned?
Stalker’s Captain Ray of Light expressed a faith that by debunking his own “miniature” pseudosciences before audiences he could transfer to people a more general critical ability, an ability to think more clearly about paranormal claims. Is this true? There are many believers in some types of paranormal phenomena who ridicule other types. There are people who will scoff at headlines in National Enquirer and at the same time believe, say, that through transcendental meditation you can learn to levitate, or that astrological predictions come true, or that UFO’s are visitors from other worlds, or that ESP exists. Many people have said: “Most psychics are, unfortunately, frauds, which makes it all the more difficult for the genuine ones to be recognized.” You even get believers in tricksters such as Uri Geller who say, “I admit he cheats some of the time, maybe even 90 percent of the time, but I still think he has genuine psychic abilities”!
If one is hunting for a signal in a lot of noise and the more one looks the more noise one finds, when is it reasonable to give up and conclude that there is no signal at all? On the other hand, sometimes there just might be a signal. The problem is, one does not want to jump too quickly to a negative generalization, particularly if one’s feelings are based merely on some kind of guilt by association. After all, not everything published in National Enquirer is false. The subtle art is in sensing just when to shift, in sensing when there is enough evidence. For better or for worse, however, it is a subjective matter, one that few journals heretofore have dealt with.
The Skeptical Inquirer concerns itself with questions ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime, from the trivial to the profound. There are those who would say it is a big waste of time to worry about drivel such as ESP and other so-called paranormal effects. Others, and I am one of them, believe that anyone who is unable or unwilling to think hard about what distinguishes the scientific system of thinking from its many rival systems is not a devotee of truth at all, and furthermore that the spreading of nonsense is a dangerous trend that ought to be checked.
The question arises, in any case, whether The Skeptical Inquirer will ever amount to more than a drop in a huge bucket. Surely its editors do not expect that someday it will be sold alongside National Enquirer at supermarket checkout counters! And, carrying this to an upside-down extreme, can you imagine a world where a debunking journal such as The Skeptical Inquirer sells millions of copies each week at supermarkets, along with its many rivals, while one lone courageous voice of the occult comes out four times a year in tabloid form and is sought out by a mere 7,500 readers? Where the many rival debunking journals are always to be found lying around in laundromats? It sounds like a crazy story fit for the pages of National Enquirer! This ludicrous scenario serves to emphasize just what the hardy band at CSICOP is up against.
What good does it do to publish their journal when only a handful of already convinced antioccult fanatics read it anyway? The answer is found in, among other places, the letters column at the back of each issue. Many people write in to say how vital the magazine has been to them, their friends and their students. High school teachers are among the most frequent writers of thank-you notes to the magazine’s editors, but I have also seen enthusiastic letters from members of the clergy, radio talk-show hosts and people in many other professions.
I would hope that by now I have aroused enough interest on the part of some readers for them to want to subscribe to The Skeptical Enquirer. The subscription rate is $16 per year, and they should write to Box 229, Central Park Station, Buffalo, N.Y. 14215. In the interest of open-mindedness I also give the address and subscription rate of The Zetetic Scholar (Department of Sociology, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Mich. 48197, $12 per year) and National Enquirer (Lantana, Fla. 33464, $13.95 per year).
Certainly one will never be able to empty the vast ocean of irrationality that all of us are surrounded by, but the ambition of The Skeptical Inquirer has never been that great; it has been, rather, to be a steady buoy to which one can cling in that tumultuous sea. It has been to promote a healthy brand of skepticism in as many people as it can. As Frazier said in one of his eloquent editorials, “skepticism is not, despite much popular misconception, a point of view. It is, instead, an essential component of intellectual inquiry, a method of determining the facts whatever they may be and wherever they may lead. It is a part of what we call common sense. It is a part of the way science works. All who are interested in the search for knowledge and the advancement of understanding, imperfect as those enterprises may be, should, it seems to me, support critical inquiry, whatever the subject and whatever the outcome.”
It is too bad we should have to constantly defend truth against so many onslaughts from people unwilling to think, but on the other hand, sloppy thought seems inevitable. It is just part of human nature. Come to think of it, I seem to remember reading somewhere recently about how your average typical-type person uses only 10 percent of their brain. Talk about sloppy–it’s amazing! Even the scientists are stumped!
Originally appeared in Scientific American (Metamagical Themas column), February, 1982. Pp 18-26. View or download original article here.