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Skeptical Organisations and Magazines: A Guide to the Skeptics

Skeptical Investigations

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The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) is a well-funded debunking organization with a $4 million headquarters building in Amherst, New York, and is currently appealing for funding for a $5 million West Coast centre, in Los Angeles. CSICOP has professional staff and employees, and has a very effective public relations operation. It also employs three research fellows, one of whom is Richard Wiseman. It publishes the Skeptical Inquirer, 'the magazine for science and reason'. It also has an array of fellows, including several well-known figures in the scientific world, such as Richard Dawkins. CSICOP was founded at the 1976 convention of the American Humanist Association. In an interview for Science magazine, Lee Nisbet, the CSICOP Executive Director, explained its position as follows: "[Belief in the paranormal is] a very dangerous phenomenon. Dangerous to science, dangerous to the basic fabric of our society…..We feel it is the duty of the scientific community to show that these beliefs are utterly screwball." However, like many of the leading figures in CSICOP, Nisbett himself is not a scientist and has no scientific qualifications.

Since CSICOP was founded, it has either set up or formed alliances with debunking organizations in many different countries, as listed in each issue of the Skeptical Inquirer.

CSICOP's primary efforts are directed to influencing public opinion. The Skeptical Inquirer carries innumerable articles decrying the media's treatment of the paranormal and describes CSICOP's attempts to combat the favourable coverage. These priorities are particularly striking in its Manual For Local Regional And National Groups (1987). Seventeen pages are devoted to "Handling the Media" and "Public Relations", but only three pages are given to "scientific investigation". These points were made very clearly by Nisbet in an article to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of CSICOP ( Skeptical Inquirer, Nov/Dec 2001). CSICOP originated "to fight mass-media exploitation of supposedly 'occult' and 'paranormal' phenomena. The strategy was two-fold: First, to strengthen the hand of skeptics in the media by providing information that 'debunked' paranormal wonders. Second, to serve as a 'media-watchdog' group which would direct public and media attention to egregious media exploitation of the supposed paranormal wonders. An underlying principle of action was to use the main-line media's thirst for public-attracting controversies to keep our activities in the media, hence in the public eye. Who thought this strategy up? Well, Paul Kurtz, that's who."

Although the title of CSICOP implies that it is engaged in scientific investigation, the only instance in which the Committee actually carried out an investigation was a fiasco. Right at the beginning of CSICOP's history, Kurtz attacked the astrological findings of Michel Gauquelin, who claimed to have found that the position of Mars at a person's birth was related to sports ability. Data were collected and analysed by CSICOP, with results that supported Gauquelin's findings. Some members of the committee charged Kurtz with trying to cover up these findings and suggested that the outcome, favourable to Gauquelin, should be frankly acknowledged. Kurtz was enraged by this opinion and refused to heed it. Several members of the CSICOP committee resigned in protest. (A detailed account of this controversy by Dennis Rawlins, one of the co-founder's of CSICOP can be read at
In 1981, CSICOP adopted a formal policy of not conducting research.

In his book The Trickster and the Paranormal (2001), George P. Hansen has published an interesting analysis of CSICOP and its activities. Here are some of his conclusions: "The Committee's primary function is to marginalize the paranormal….Status consciousness is one of the Committee's salient characteristics. CSICOP goes to considerable lengths to assure its status and respectability in the eyes of scientific, academic, and media elites. It has gathered an impressive roster of members, including five Nobel Laureates (though none of them has ever published research on the paranormal). Because CSICOP is so status conscious, scientific investigation is inappropriate for it. If a serious, sustained effort were undertaken to investigate the paranormal, that by itself would confer status upon the topic. It would signal the paranormal to be worthy of study. Instead, the Committee belittles such efforts, and its magazine carries cartoons and caricatures that ridicule researchers."
Website: www.csicop.org

The Skeptic magazine

The British Skeptic magazine shows its affinities with organized skepticism in the US by using the American spelling, with a 'k', rather than the usual British spelling of sceptic with a 'c'. This magazine is designed and printed by CSICOP and the Skeptical Inquirer, and distributed from their headquarters in the US. The tone of the magazine is much more moderate than that of its American counterpart and it is more humorous and less dogmatic. One of the editors is Dr Chris French who heads the anomalistic psychology research unit at Goldsmith's College, London. Associated with The Skeptic magazine (which is not connected with the American magazine of the same name edited by Michael Shermer) is "Skeptics in the Pub", which holds regular meetings in a pub in London. (www.cix.co.uk/ philmck/skeptic/pub/index.htll). Another similar organisation sponsored by the British skeptics is 'Rationalists in the Pub' (details of which can be found on the "Skeptics in the Pub' web site).
Skeptic magazine web site: www.cix.co.uk/ philmck/skeptic/ url

The Skeptic Society

The Skeptic Society is largely a one-man band, directed by Michael Shermer whose "Skeptic" column is featured in the Scientific American and who also regularly appears on US television. Shermer is the editor of Skeptic magazine (not to be confused by the British Skeptic magazine, produced by CSICOP). The magazine contains news items, essays by Michael Shermer and provides material on how to teach courses in skepticism in colleges. In the "Skeptic Manifesto" (by Michael Shermer) there are several wise caveats about skepticism: "It is easy, even fun, to challenge others' beliefs when we are smug in the certainty of our own. But when ours are challenged, it takes great patience and ego strength to listen with an unjaundiced ear. But there is a deeper flaw in pure skepticism. Taken to an extreme the position by itself cannot stand…if you are skeptical about everything, you would have to be skeptical of your own skepticism. Like the decaying sub-atomic particle, pure skepticism uncoils and spins off the viewing screen of our intellectual cloud chamber."
Web site: www.skeptic.com

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF)

was founded by James Randi in 1996. According to the JREF web site, "Its aim is to promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today….. To raise public awareness of these issues, the Foundation offers a $1,000,000 prize to any person or persons who can demonstrate any psychic, supernatural or paranormal ability of any kind under mutually agreed upon scientific conditions.." Located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the Foundation is funded through member contributions, grants, and conferences. Randi courts controversy, but now even the JREF web site is the subject of a bitter dispute. On July 18, 2002 Randi wrote in his commentary: "We need the help of readers. We've been informed that the JREF web site has been blocked from several school and library computer systems. This, if true, is a serious breach of our right to freedom of speech. We're an educational foundation, and one of our major purposes is to reach schools and libraries. We take this threat very seriously… We intend to take action against those who might have blocked us." Those who support this blocking claim that this is because of the contents of the bulletin board, alleging that it contains "incessant discussions involving obscenities, vulgarity, pedophilia, material of a sexual nature as well as a general lack of respect among members for each other which occurs on the bulletin board. We are asking you to visit this board and make a thorough search of its content. If you agree that this should be an adults only board, as some have implied it is, we urge you to ask your schools and libraries to block this site…. This is being brought to your attention because the opening pages and other parts of the site do not contain the material found on its bulletin board. Many people can be misled, therefore, into believing the site is suitable for their children."
Web site: www.randi.org

The Randi Prize

Randi's main claim to fame is that he offers a million dollar prize to "any person or persons who can demonstrate any psychic, supernatural or paranormal ability of any kind under satisfactory observing conditions". According to the James Randi Educational Foundation web site, "JREF will not entertain any demand that the prize money be deposited in escrow, displayed in cash, or otherwise produced in advance of the test being performed." The conditions for the prize are set out on the JREF web site ( www.randi.org/research/challenge.html ).

Contenders have to pay for their own travelling expenses if they want to go to Randi to be tested: Rule 6: "All expenses such as transportation, accommodation and/or other costs incurred by the applicant/claimant in pursuing the reward, are the sole responsibility of the applicant/claimant." Also, applicants waive their legal rights: Rule 7: "When entering into this challenge, applicant surrenders any and all rights to legal action against Mr. Randi, and against the James Randi Educational Foundation, as far as this may be done by established statutes. This applies to injury, accident, or any other damage of a physical or emotional nature and/or financial, or professional, loss of any kind." Applicants also give Randi complete control over publicity. Rule 3: "Applicant agrees that all data (photographic, recorded, written, etc.) of any sort gathered as a result of the testing may be used freely by JREF in any way Mr. Randi may choose." The rules are conceived by a showman not a scientist, and make little sense from a genuinely scientific point of view. Rule 4 states "tests will be designed in such a way that no 'judging' procedure is required. Results will be self-evident to any observer." Most scientific research, including research in particle physics, clinical medicine, conventional psychology and parapsychology, depends on statistical results that need to be analysed by experts to judge the significance of what has happened. Practically all serious scientific research would fail to qualify for the Randi prize.
For many years this "prize" has been Randi's stock-in-trade as a media skeptic, but even some other skeptics are skeptical about its value as anything but a publicity stunt. For example, CSICOP founding member Dennis Rawlins pointed out that not only does Randi act as "policeman, judge and jury" but quoted him as saying "I always have an out"! ( Fate, October 1981).

In any case, even if someone were to win the Randi prize, it would be scientifically irrelevant, as Randi's fellow skeptic Ray Hyman has pointed out: "Scientists don't settle issues with a single test, so even if someone does win a big cash prize in a demonstration, this isn't going to convince anyone. Proof in science happens through replication, not through single experiments.

Randi understands this, and he is careful to say this, but it gets lost in the PR effort. But many in the scientific community worship Randi because they wish they could be him. The wish they didn't have the constraints of academia. He's out there in the trenches, on the front line, and they envy him for that." (from an interview of Hyman by Michael Shermer for Skeptic Magazine: www.skeptic.com/archives03.html)

Read more articles on this topic:

Skeptics and Their Arguments