Something for Everyone at World Skeptics Congress
It began with a stirring live symphonic performance of Gustav Holst’s The Planets beneath a striking video of spacecraft imagery of the planets and ended with Steve Allen at the piano banging out some boogie-woogie. Between the rousing musical endpoints, audiences were treated to three days of packed scientific and scholarly presentations on everything from anti-science and alternative health cures to homeopathy, parapsychology, UFOlogy, and the mechanisms of self-deception.
The first World Skeptics Congress — also the twentieth-anniversary conference of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, Science in the Age of (Mis)Information — had a little something for everyone.
There was a surprise announcement that asteroids had been named after CSICOP and its founder, Paul Kurtz. There was a lively lunchtime question-and-answer interchange between Chris Carter, the creator of the immensely popular X-Files television show, and an audience of skeptics ranging from admiring fans to critics worried that the Fox network drama promotes paranormal beliefs. The conference even featured a surprise visit from Charles Darwin (persuasively played in black cape by biology professor Clyde Herreid), introducing and briefly upstaging his twentieth-century evolutionary disciple, Stephen Jay Gould.
A Council on Media Integrity (see page 8) was created, a twentieth-birthday cake cut, awards presented, conference T-shirts sold, and a second World Skeptics Congress initiated (in Heidelberg, Germany, probably June or July 1998).
At least 1,200 people from twenty-four countries attended all or parts of the congress-by far the largest crowd for any CSICOP conference. (The local newspaper estimated that 2,000 attended Gould’s lecture in the university gymnasium.) They heard some seventy speakers, themselves a representative roster of internationalism: Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Germany, Hungary, India, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S. There was a Nobel laureate (Leon Lederman), two MacArthur Fellows (James Randi and Stephen Jay Gould), an Emmy winner (Chris Carter), and the recently knighted if chronically rumpled (a point amusingly made by Randi in his introduction) editor emeritus of Nature, John Maddox.
The media were there in force as well. The Associated Press sent out an opening-day story. National Public Radio’s Science Friday did two hours live from the conference. WGN radio Chicago, Australian radio, C- SPAN, and the BBC were there; CNN did something, NBC’s Today Show mentioned the conference, as did David Letterman on his CBS program Late Show, and there was an array of other print reporters and writers from round the world. The Boston Globe did a big feature (July 1), and the New York Times published exerpts from some of the conference papers (July 7).
We begin our coverage of the congress in this issue with Wendy Grossman’s lively, impressionistic account and commentary, and several short pieces. Look for more in our next issue and for articles based on several of the most prominent presentations later.