The Founding of NMSR: A Look Back after Twenty-Five Years
May 8, 2015
New Mexicans for Science and Reason (NMSR) has been proudly on its own for twenty-five years. But it had its origin in a national and even international movement to help spread science-based skepticism around the country and the world.
In the 1980s, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), founded with considerable fanfare in 1976, began an aggressive campaign to help create local and regional skeptic groups in the United States (as well as in other countries).
As editor of CSICOP’s journal the Skeptical Inquirer and a member of the CSICOP Executive Council, as well as an Albuquerque resident since 1977, I felt New Mexico needed a skeptics group to help promote good science and critical thinking. New Mexico has a proud scientific and engineering tradition, with a number of first-class scientists and engineers. It also was the locus of a lot of New Age and pseudoscientific hooey.
The first groundwork was laid in 1987. I had learned about John Geohegan, a local engineer and humanist, and had my eye on him as a potential leader of such a group. On December 2, 1987, I wrote to our headquarters in Buffalo, New York, asking them to send a letter and handbook to John, who “has expressed interest in helping me/us start a local group in the Albuquerque area.” I said, “I feel an increasing need and interest for a New Mexico group. But I have little time to organize one myself. Nevertheless, I would want to form a distinguished advisory board of scientists and scholars. Most I already have in mind. My idea is I would play a co-chairman or some such role.”
On December 8, 1987, CSICOP headquarters mailed a letter to John. “We have been given your name by Ken Frazier as being interested in starting a local group in the Albuquerque area. We appreciate your enthusiasm and enclose a manual for groups for you to read. “
John responded in friendly fashion but said “my decision is not to start a group now.” He gave a number of reasons, but ended, “I’m going to bide my time. . . . I’m still here and interested so don’t cross me out of your memory bank.” (John Geohegan to Mark Plummer, CSICOP, January 29, 1988.)
Two years elapsed before that fledgling effort came to fruition.
But then it happened. On February 8, 1990, Barry Karr, then the new Executive Director of CSICOP, a position he still happily holds today, sent out a letter on CSICOP letterhead to every Skeptical Inquirer subscriber in most of New Mexico. I think all subscribers from at least Socorro in the south through the Albuquerque area and to Santa Fe and Los Alamos in the north got it.
The letter noted that the Skeptical Inquirer had been published for fourteen years and “has a healthy circulation through the U.S.A.” It said that over the past eight years local organizations with aims similar to CSICOP had been established, and CSICOP would like to see the formation of a “properly constituted group” in New Mexico that would “be committed to the scientific method. . . . We would appreciate your thoughts as to how we can encourage the formation of a new local group in New Mexico.” It asked for help identifying key scientists or journalists and key university faculty members to whom CSICOP could send information packages.
The letter concluded: “If you would like to help start a new New Mexico Skeptics group please complete the form on the other side. You may suggest other ways we can expand in your state. We would greatly appreciate your thoughts and suggestions.”
I have copies of thirty-seven of those surveys returned to our Buffalo headquarters, all filled out by hand. Many respondents volunteered to become actively involved. Some of the people who returned surveys are still active today, such as M.B. (Mark) Boslough, Gerald Shelton, Ted Cloak, and Rick Buss. A number of responses came from Santa Fe, including Joe Szimhart (an expert on cults who now works in Pennsylvania); Sam Balleen, the owner of the La Fonda Hotel and a self-described “physics groupie”; and writer/historian John Pen La Farge.
The next step was an organizing meeting. I arranged for the meeting hall at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History on May 16, 1990. CSICOP paid the $40 rental fee. I still have that receipt and rental agreement.
In April 1990, CSICOP headquarters sent out an attractive one-page flyer inviting to the meeting all those who responded to the survey, as well as other SI subscribers.
“Come Witness the Birth of a New Group: The New Mexico Skeptics, May 16, 1990, 7:00 p.m., New Mexico Museum of Natural History, Multipurpose Room 3-4, Albuquerque,” the one-page flyer began. “Meet: Ken Frazier, editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and fellow skeptics from around the state. This will be an organizational meeting to determine officers, membership dues, newsletter participants, and the constitution for your group.”
I have a brief hand-written note I made to bring to that meeting, with three main agenda questions:
- Do We Want a Local Group?
- What Should It Do?
- What Are the Major Local Issues?
Later that night I typed up a two-page memo about that meeting. Here are some of my recollections and my comments at the time:
It was a very good meeting; I officiated (along with my wife, Ruth). Twenty-eight people filled the meeting room to capacity. One of them, I was pleased to see, was John Geohegan.
I began by telling them that New Mexico was tied for second among all the fifty states in Skeptical Inquirer subscribers per capita. (California was first; New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, and Massachusetts tied for second.)
They expressed enthusiastic support for a local group. They engaged in lively discussion of possible goals, programs, and policies.
“The group,” I wrote, “will work to critically evaluate local paranormal and fringe-science claims and promote science education, scientific inquiry, and clear and creative thinking.”
That was a big first step. The next big step in the meeting, and a giant relief for me, was when John Geohegan kindly agreed to serve as chairman. Whew! Thank you, John! He was then head of the New Mexico humanist society, but his term was ending in the fall. I had told the attendees I could not head the group (in addition to editing SI I worked full time at Sandia Labs) but would actively participate and provide help, advice, and support. I gave John a sample of a generic constitution and bylaws CSICOP had in its kit for local groups and a copy of one local group’s actual bylaws.
A newsletter was deemed extremely important, and John Smallwood, head of a strong contingent who came from Santa Fe, said he would see to that task. (John had written to me the previous year, in January 1989, saying, “Some of us in Santa Fe would very much like to meet with you to explore the possibility of a local group of skeptics.” Pen La Farge, became editor of our new group’s first newsletter, The Enchanted Skeptic.)
Dues were not decided upon until the next meeting, but participants in that first meeting each gave a dollar to Ted Cloak to ensure there would be postage to mail a notification about the next. It was decided to meet once a month, on the second Wednesday of the month. Someone (I think John) suggested the UNM Law School, where the local humanists met at and which did not charge a rental fee, as a possible alternative to the Museum. (That suggestion was soon adopted.)
Don Abbott, a retired engineer from Santa Fe and one of the participants in the meeting, wrote a very complimentary letter of reflections to me the very next day: “Until last night’s meeting each one of us subscribers must have felt—in John Donne’s phrase—‘an island unto himself’ so it has been encouraging to find that there are like-minded others ‘out there.’”
As for the name of the group, well, that wasn’t decided until the next meeting, on July 11, 1990. I had a strong idea that I wanted “science” in the name
but I wanted to hear others’ ideas. My notes of that meeting include some interesting suggestions for names:
New Mexicans for Scientific Thinking in Everyday Life
Group for Scientific Inquiry
Society of New Mexico Skeptics
New Mexico Seekers of the Truth
New Mexicans for Everyday Reason
Scientific Inquirers for Reality
I strongly urged that our name say what we are for, not what we are against. I don’t recall how much discussion it took, but without too much debate my suggestion of New Mexicans for Science and Reason was voted on and approved.
We have been known by that name ever since. I think it has served us well.
Yea! We had a name, a chairman (John Geohegan; I was vice-chairman for the first year or so), a secretary (Ted Cloak), a treasurer (John J. Miller), a newsletter (The Enchanted Skeptic, succeeded a few years later by the monthly NMSR Reports, now it its twenty-first volume). We were off to the skeptical races.
* * * *
From that very beginning NMSR has been in excellent hands. John ran all the meetings after that for some years. Sometime in the early 1990s a young physicist/mathematician and amateur magician named Dave Thomas started showing up and impressing us with his knowledge, interest, and skills. By 1995, Dave was NMSR’s Vice-President and editor of NMSR Reports. Eventually, by their mutual agreement, Dave became president (remaining editor) and John became second in command. (I happily stepped down from any further official role.) Early on, Nancy Shelton became the treasurer, and she has remained in that post all these years.
I am so proud of NMSR. I am pleased to think that I had something to do with its founding, but its wonderful success over this past quarter century has been due totally to the dedication and hard work of John, Dave, Nancy, and the many, many loyal members who come to all the meetings and take part in lively discussions.
I have many times remarked to my skeptical colleagues around the country (and around the world) that I consider NMSR to be one of the best and most dynamic local skeptic groups. It meets every month; it has interesting, authoritative speakers; it has avoided the political in-fighting that has doomed many groups; it is run efficiently and economically; and it has been a consistent, strong presence.
It certainly is one of the most scientifically oriented skeptic groups in the United States. Many, if not most, of the speakers at meetings are scientists or academics reporting on their scientific work and insights. But where their scientific field is misunderstood or distorted by the public toward paranormal or pseudoscientific agendas, those same speakers used their expertise to clearly enunciate the differences between good science and bad science.
I am proud of my long association with NMSR. I am so pleased to congratulate it on its twenty-fifth anniversary. I so much admire all of you who have made it work so well all these years. I look forward with pleasure and anticipation to NMSR’s continued strong role in the promotion of science and the exposure of pseudoscience for years and years to come.