More Options

Organized Skepticism: Four Decades ... and Today

Commentary

Kendrick Frazier

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 39.2, March/April 2015

To begin, I want to take you back to just over forty years ago, the year 1974. (For readers barely born then, I apologize; I need to give some historical perspective about organized skepticism, but bear with me, we’ll soon forge ahead.)

The world back then was awash in unexamined paranormalism. Astrology was in high vogue, and “What’s your sign?” passed for a mainstream conversation starter. Psychics reigned everywhere. Some well-publicized parapsychological experiments had convinced many of the reality of psychic powers (psi). Uri Geller was bending cutlery and fooling even some prominent physicists into thinking he was doing it by the sheer power of his mind. Flying saucers and UFOs were penetrating our skies. Ships and airplanes were seemingly disappearing daily into the Bermuda Triangle. Erich von Däniken was writing bestselling books about ancient astronauts and the almost-racist notion that ancient edifices of the Americas were built not by the skill and hard work of the people who lived there but by aliens.

But a scientific response to all this nonsense was beginning to brew. In February 1974, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, at its annual meeting in San Francisco, held a most extraordinary symposium called to examine the claims of Immanuel Velikovsky and give him the scientific hearing he had long demanded. Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision book had gone through seventy-two printings since 1950 and garnered both the wrath of scientists and the science-snubbing approval of some prominent literati.

Five hundred people filled the auditorium that day. I sat in the front row while the seventy-seven-year-old Velikovsky, his silver hair and demeanor lending him an almost biblical air, and the passionate young astronomer Carl Sagan, already famous at age thirty-nine, squared off against each other. Two amazingly charismatic figures in collision. It was electrifying. I was one of the science writers who ran over to Sagan afterward and persuaded him to loan his fifty-six-page manuscript to us temporarily so we could take it to the AAAS Press Room for photocopying so we could all have copies. As I recall, it was double-spaced and filled with scores of changes Carl had made, right up to delivery, in his own hand.

Sagan’s ten-part dissection that day of Velikovsky’s arguments is still being debated. It continues to stimulate strong philosophical interest. But I deeply admired Sagan’s willingness and determination to take on the ideas of one of the era’s most influential and intelligent pseudoscientists—and to read Velikovsky’s books carefully and to write such an extended critique and present it in such a public forum. Until then few scientists were willing to do such things. To my mind this was one of the seminal moments in establishing a new tradition of scientists and scientific-minded scholars publicly committing time and effort to examining—not ignoring—extraordinary claims of a pseudoscientific, fringe-scientific, or paranormal nature.

Later that same year came Philip J. Klass’s book UFOs Explained, patiently and thoroughly examining some of the most prominent UFO and flying saucer claims.

The next year things really got into high gear. Larry Kusche published The Bermuda Triangle Mystery Solved, still today regarded (correctly in my view) as one of the classic debunking books of all time. (Debunking is the end result; Kusche hates to be characterized as a debunker; he just wanted to find out the truth, and he did.) That same year James (“The Amazing”) Randi published his book The Magic of Uri Geller, the first exposé of Geller’s methods and tricks.

And then in the September/October 1975 issue of The Humanist, at the behest of its editor, the S.U.N.Y Buffalo professor of philosophy Paul Kurtz, came “Objections to Astrology,” a statement straightforwardly cautioning the public “against the unquestioning acceptance of the predictions and advice given privately and publicly by astrologers.” The two-page statement was written by the noted University of Arizona astronomer Bark J. Bok with the help of science writer Lawrence Jerome and Kurtz. It was signed by 192 leading scientists (including nineteen Nobel Prize winners) and accompanied by two supporting articles, including Bok’s “A Critical Look at Astrology.” Such was the public appeal of astrology at that time that this fairly mild statement of objections ignited a firestorm of publicity and controversy.

Something big was happening. The scientific examination of widely accepted claims that to scientists were at best, misguided, and at worst, totally bogus, was now a major news story and a part of the new cultural debate.

In the meantime, James Randi, psychologist Ray Hyman, and Martin Gardner—a hero already to many for his classic book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science—were discussing among themselves some kind of organization that could address such claims. But they had no experience in creating organizations.

Enter Paul Kurtz. Kurtz’s experience with the “Objections to Astrology” statement had impressed on him the need for scientific and scholarly examinations of paranormal and fringe-science claims of wide popular appeal. Kurtz was concerned about this uncritical acceptance and the lack of scholarly rebuttal. And he was an organizational genius.

Paul, Lee Nisbet (who had recently gotten his PhD in philosophy), and sociologist Marcello Truzzi organized and publicized an unusual conference at the brand new suburban Amherst campus of S.U.N.Y. Buffalo. It was titled “The New Irrationalisms: Antiscience and Pseudoscience.” Held May 1, 1976, it brought together the leading lights of scientific skepticism of the time to air their scientific viewpoints about all the bizarre claims then in the wind.

Like the AAAS Velikovsky symposium, it was electric. And it was here that the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) was founded. The news media widely covered the event (including the New York Times, Science magazine, Time, and my own cover article in Science News). Kurtz, Randi, Gardner, Hyman, and Truzzi were on the original CSICOP Executive Council. So were Phil Klass and Nisbet. Sagan was one of the founding fellows. So was Isaac Asimov. So were a number of other famous scientists and scholars (including, by my count, eight professors of philosophy in addition to Kurtz and Nisbet). Truzzi was the first editor of CSICOP’s journal, initially called The Zetetic. I succeeded him the next year, and in 1978 we renamed it the Skeptical Inquirer. I’ve told the fuller story of this beginning of the modern-day skeptical movement many times so I won’t say much more here.

There was one earlier organization I should mention—Belgium’s Comité Para. It was formed in 1949 and has been in existence ever since.

(My invited 8,400-word history of the first two decades of CSICOP, published in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal [G. Stein, ed., Prometheus Books, 1996], is now online on our committee’s website at www.csicop.org/about/csicop. And yes, I know that there is a long record of skeptical activity preceding the 1970s. If you think I’m taking a long perspective, then I recommend reading our skeptic colleague Daniel Loxton’s detailed online article “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement? Part One: Two Millennia of Paranormal Skepticism,” 2013, at www.skeptic.com.)

But for the English-speaking world, CSICOP was the first well-organized and broadly constituted organization to examine paranormal and fringe-science claims from a scientific viewpoint—and to serve as a forum for scholarly discussion of all the relevant academic, social, and educational issues surrounding them.

The idea quickly spread. Skepticism was in the air. CSICOP helped found or inspire local and regional skeptics groups in the U.S. around the same ideas and principles. The Bay Area Skeptics were the first, but soon there were dozens of others. Inspired by CSICOP, they were independent and autonomous and excellently situated to deal with local and regional issues.

But Kurtz was an internationalist, and he actively encouraged forming similar groups in countries worldwide. He had a lively mind, tremendous energy, strong intellectual credentials, academic position, a global vision, and the bearing and instincts of a diplomat—combined (almost incongruously for an academic) with the skills of a first-class promoter. All this made for an effective and inspiring figure who easily gathered scientists, scholars, investigators, and supporters from all parts of the world to help fight the proliferation of pseudoscience and unreason.

Somewhere along the way back then, in 1980, the Australian Skeptics got started when Dick Smith brought Randi to Australia to test claims of water diviners. Starting with our Winter 1980–81 issue of SI, we began listing “Australia” among the “sections” of the Committee. The contacts were Mark Plummer . . . and Dick Smith. I also notice that the group’s fine magazine, The Skeptic, which I read with great interest every issue, has just completed Volume 34. (Mark Plummer later moved to the United States and became executive director of CSICOP from 1987–1989. He was succeeded by Barry Karr, in that position ever since.) Since then the Australian Skeptics have been carrying out the fight on that continent. They have been one of the world’s strongest national skeptic groups.

The United Kingdom’s magazine The Skeptic came along a bit later (it is now in Volume 26). Together these three major English-language journals of scientific skepticism have combined to bring informed critical inquiry to audiences in all hemispheres. Add to them all the other journals and other countries, such as Germany’s Skeptiker and the Netherland’s Skepter, and the developed world, anyway, is well covered.

Now I zoom ahead. We continued, as Kurtz wrote after our first five years, “to encourage the spirit of scientific inquiry and to cultivate the skeptical attitude and the quest for evidence and reason” (Paul Kurtz, “From the Chairman,” SI, Spring 1981, 2–4).

We have now concluded our thirty-eighth year. Our January/February 2015 issue began Volume 39 . . . then it’s on to 40. Over that time we have done our best to keep aglow the light of reason and rationality and to cultivate scientific thinking in the wider public. We have critically examined thousands of individual claims and assertions and published the results for the world to see. We have explored virtually every issue important to skeptics. We have encouraged greater skepticism in the news media and served them as a source of reliable scientific information. We have done our best to make others aware of the dangers to democracy posed by confusions between reality and fantasy, sense and nonsense, and real science and its pretenders and adversaries.

It has never been easy. We have had our epic battles and setbacks. But we always persevered. We intend to continue to do so. We have always had the involvement and support of the world’s scientific and academic communities. Scientists and scholars—and tireless writers and investigators—contribute their energy, expertise, and scholarship to critically examine claims and explore all the social, political, scientific, philosophical, and educational issues surrounding them. Good-spirited people everywhere crave responsibly, scientifically evaluated information and perspective. We scientific skeptics, no matter where we labor, in cooperation with researchers in dozens of academic fields, help provide that.

In 1995, SI gave up its digest-sized format for a more traditional magazine format and increased its frequency from quarterly to bimonthly. This has allowed us to be more timely and topical and to publish more editorial material. Another big change came in 2006. We shortened our name from the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, keeping our first three initials, CSI. That old twenty-syllable name just didn’t work anymore in this age of TV and radio sound bites. Also many of us were increasingly uncomfortable with having the word “paranormal” in our name, even if it was clear we were examining the “paranormal.” We also broadened our mission statement to “investigation of controversial or extraordinary claims” (see the January/February 2007 SI).

For our first sixteen years, CSICOP was the only such national group in the United States. In 1992 came Michael Shermer’s Skeptics Society and its new quarterly magazine, Skeptic. This enterprise, too, had its roots in CSICOP’s outreach activities, getting its start from solicitations to SI’s Southern California mailing list to what was then a regional Los Angeles–based group. Since then there have been two major skeptic magazines in the U.S. (not counting the many newsletters by local groups). As for the U.K., we have always been closely associated with its magazine The Skeptic, publishing it out of Amherst for several years until just this past year when we handed it back over to the U.K. Skeptics. However, we still do the layout and design work.

Over our first thirty years, CSICOP held major conferences about every year and a half, usually near a major university and in conjunction with relevant academic departments such as physics, psychology, and philosophy. These tended to be very substantive conferences, close to academic in tone but (given our subject matter) dealing with far more controversial and emotional (and interesting!) topics. They were great fun as well. They gave science-minded skeptics from all over a chance to get together. Then for a time starting in about 2005, and for reasons hard to explain, that tradition went into a seven-year hiatus. James Randi’s JREF (James Randi Educational Foundation) began filling that gap with a new series of popular conferences, TAM, held in Las Vegas.

We resumed our conferences in October 2011 with CSICon 1 in New Orleans and CSICon 2 in Nashville in October 2012. In 2013, our conference was a joint “Summit” conference in Tacoma, Washington, with our supporting organization, the Center for Inquiry, and our sister organization, the Council for Secular Humanism. Our next will also be a joint conference, at our founding location, Amherst, New York, June 11–14, 2015.

Paul Kurtz founded all these organizations. He built the Center for Inquiry’s headquarters building, across the street from the University at Buffalo, where most of CSI’s and CSH’s activities are located. (Some of us have always worked elsewhere; in this Internet age having everyone at one central location is no longer essential.)

For about five years, from 2007 to 2011, the combined organization went through an agonizing period, as we transitioned to new leadership. We had a single charismatic founder we all loved and respected, but he couldn’t go on forever. Paul was in his eighties then. For some years the boards of the three organizations had worked with him to try to come up with a succession plan. We all knew replacing such a remarkable visionary was nearly impossible. We tried various ideas but none got far. I am on those boards. I can tell you the whole process was extraordinarily painful for everyone involved.

Now, I am pleased to say, things have stabilized again. In fact they have been stable for a few years now. Ronald A. Lindsay is the president and CEO of the combined organization(s). He is a strong defender of secularism and scientific skepticism. He has been a calm and steady force. Like Paul, Ron has a PhD in philosophy, but he also has a law degree, increasingly relevant in these times. His book The Necessity of Secularism was published in December (see New and Notable, page 59). The CFI Board, chaired by Eddie Tabash, a civil liberties lawyer deeply dedicated to our causes, has also taken a much more active role to ensure the longtime vitality of the organization. Barry Karr, who has thirty years of service with us and is strongly dedicated to the skeptic mission, remains CSI’s executive director. And as a brain trust, we have the CSI Executive Council (its newest members are physicians Harriet Hall and Steve Novella) and about a hundred prominent fellows, elected for their distinguished contributions to science and skepticism. And, I am glad to say, we are a much more diverse organization than when we started. For a long time now many outstanding women scientific skeptics have been deeply involved.

(One more thing: As announced in this issue’s cover wrap, effective January 8, 2015, CSI and CSH have formally become programs within the Center for Inquiry. No significant effects on the Skeptical Inquirer or CSI’s activities are expected.)

Paul Kurtz, the extraordinarily gifted and pragmatic philosopher who created the world’s leading organizations for scientific skepticism and secular humanism, died October 20, 2012, two months short of his eighty-seventh birthday. He was my mentor and my friend. I was privileged to be an invited speaker at a memorial service the Kurtz family put on at the University at Buffalo December 1, 2012. There were so many tributes that they went on the entire day.

The need for informed scientific skepticism has never waned. But the circumstances in which we now operate have greatly changed. The Internet has led to the proliferation of pseudoscientific claims . . . but also to an opportunity to reach wider audiences, quickly, with good science and informed rebuttals. An example is Skeptical Inquirer’s Facebook page. I don’t run it (Barry Karr does), so I feel free to praise it unreservedly. It is a wonderful, lively way to keep up with daily developments not just in scientific skepticism but in science as well.

What once was a fairly homogeneous and organized set of skeptical activities has now become a much more diverse, prolific, and fragmented situation. Young people and women can easily enter and create their own niches, and that is good for everyone. Many disparate groups have sprung up. Some have no connection with each other or any sense of the history of this movement. Countless investigators and skeptics of all stripes now have their own blogs and online columns. Whole new forums have been created, such as the popular Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast by the extraordinary Steven Novella and his brothers. Not to mention our own organization’s popular podcast of in-depth interviews, Point of Inquiry.

It is getting harder and harder to keep up. But for the most part all this is a healthy proliferation of skepticism. Opinion is always easy, but facts and evidence, historical and cultural perspective, and a mature, scientific viewpoint are still most needed. That requires considerable discipline and work. In SI we’ve always tried to live up to high standards of inquiry—state things carefully, let the facts speak for themselves, provide thorough documentation, avoid personal attacks, etc. At CSI and in SI, we are at least a semi-scholarly journal and we also do professional scientific journalism—strongly investigative, hard-nosed to be sure, but still professional. In this age of personal blogs and posts, it sometimes seems that these kinds of standards have gone out the window. I think they remain important. And most good scientific skeptics do try to adhere to them. (If you want to pursue this more, there is still no better guide than Ray Hyman’s classic “Proper Criticism,” on our website at http://www.csicop.org/si/show/proper_criticism/.) In my remaining space I want to touch briefly on some other issues:

Specific claims vs. broader issues: Good scientific skepticism needs to deal with the entire spectrum. The nitty-gritty, down-in-the-trenches investigations into popular mysteries are an essential core; scholarly examinations of how we think and how we believe and how our preconceptions and beliefs affect our perceptions and acceptance of new information are another key component; still broader overviews bringing historical or philosophical perspective to the quest are another. I think good skepticism requires working at all these levels. I see no contradictions among them or any need to consider one less important. Some skeptics are more comfortable focusing mostly on one of these arenas. Scientific skepticism is a big tent and works best when it embraces contributions from many different perspectives.

Popular vs. scholarly: Same comment. SI has always spanned the entire spectrum, from popular claims to all those serious issues where pseudoscientific beliefs mislead and even greatly endanger the public and affect education and the place of science in society. We treat them all. Science vs. religion: All skeptic organizations have their own policies for dealing with matters of religion (or not). Ours in SI has always been to emphasize areas where religious doctrine makes empirical, testable claims and where scientific study and scholarship can bring new insights and perspective. This may seem a limitation, but these are surprisingly rich fields. Our occasional science and religion special issues always prompt a huge, and largely positive, reader response. One more point: What we scientific skeptics have in common with our colleagues who identify more as humanists or atheists is an intense distaste for dogma. Dogma is the real enemy of reason. Climate science: We’ve been involved in this topic, in which an important area of science has been under persistent attack, since 2007. Some skeptics may consider it not to be our fight. But I see it as little different from defending the teaching of evolutionary science from attacks by the religious right. In this case, the most vociferous attacks come for a variety of other ideological reasons, but the distortions and even denials of science are part of a pattern we’ve seen in many other areas. I think they require skeptics’ attention.

I also note that the temporary leveling off of annual average mean surface temperatures that contrarians misleadingly call a pause in global warming (the oceans are definitely warming) may not be in evidence much longer. According to NASA, NOAA, and the Japan Meteorological Agency, September 2014 was the warmest September worldwide since records began in 1880, and the period October 2013 through September 2014 was the hottest twelve-month period ever in that same climate record. In the meantime, the oceans are warming. The summer of 2014 saw the highest global mean sea surface temperatures since systematic measuring started.) (See “Five Things to Know about 2014 Global Temperatures,” NOAA’s climate.gov., Oct. 24, 2014, and “Warmest Oceans Ever Recorded,” University of Hawaii release, Nov. 14, 2014.)

In January, NASA and NOAA confirmed that 2014 was indeed the warmest year on record.

Good science is, as always, how we gain greater understanding.

I have written several times previously (most recently in the November/December 2013 SI) about the higher values of skepticism. I end on that note. What we are ultimately defending here are a variety of liberties essential to enlightened societies and functional democracies: freedom of inquiry and expression at all levels; science as the most reliable guide to truth about the natural world; a love of learning and questioning; respect for human rights and dignity; the right to learn, and to study, and to investigate unfettered by any authoritarian interference; free and open discussion of all issues; and the idea that hard-won new knowledge—while it always raises new issues and problems—is essential for continuing human progress.

Good scientific skepticism ultimately contributes to all these goals. I am proud to be part of that effort. You should be too.

Kendrick Frazier

Kendrick Frazier's photo

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.