My thanks go to Cathi Carol, Editorial Director, The Association for Skeptical Investigation Skeptical About Skeptics http://skepticalaboutskeptics.org/ for the permission to use extracts from the article inline with my own observations.
In his letter of resignation from CSICOP (October 29, 1977)”co-founder Marcello Truzzi “You asked me if CSICOP really does block inquiry. I very much think it has and still does. This to me is the main objection I have to so much CSICOP does and the way they do it, by acting not as mere attorneys for the orthodox but also pretending to be judge and jury for science.”
When CSICOP celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1996 the editor of its British publication The Skeptic, Wendy Grossman, made an observation that must have left her fellow skeptics somewhat depressed. “The key question after 20 years,” she wrote (New Scientist, 13 July 1996) “must be whether CSICOP’s existence has made any difference.” To judge from what she was seeing on TV and in the bookshops “the signal-to-noise ratio of junk to science has become much worse since then”. She also had to admit that “over the past 20 years, the things that CSICOP was founded to fight against have become much worse.” The war declared in 1976 against anything that could be labeled paranormal was, it seemed, not going well.
There was worse to come. Five years later a Gallup poll revealed a clear increase in belief in just about everything from haunted houses (up 13 percent on an earlier poll) and communication with the dead (10%) to psychic healing (8%) and reincarnation (4%).
Then in May 2006 the 30th anniversary of CSICOP coincided almost to the day with another nasty shock to the skeptical system – a new poll commissioned by Reader’s Digest in which more than 1,000 adults were questioned about their paranormal beliefs. This revealed remarkably high levels of belief in such matters such as knowing when somebody you can’t see is staring at you (68%), and knowing who is calling you before you pick up the phone (62%). More than half (52%) reported instances of premonition, often in dreams, while nearly a fifth (19%) claimed to have seen a ghost.
Worst of all for the skeptics was CSICOP’s own poll published in The Skeptical Inquirer (SI) (January/February 2006 issue). This focused on college students – 439 of them – because, the authors explained, “We assumed that higher education, as one of the few remaining bastions of critical thinking, would provide little room for pseudoscientific or paranormal beliefs”.
To test this over-optimistic assumption, questions were similar to those of the 2001 Gallup poll, the wording of some of them suggesting that CSICOP did not really understand what it was supposed to be investigating. For instance, students were asked if they believed in “clairvoyance, or the power of the mind to know the past and predict the future” (clairvoyance actually means seeing at a distance without the use of the known senses; predicting the future is usually known as prophecy or precognition).
An even more carelessly worded question concerned “psychic or spiritual healing or the power of the human mind to heal the body.” These are of course entirely separate matters, the latter being indisputable as any hypnotherapist or researcher who has carried out trials using a placebo has known for at least 200 years.
Or maybe another of CSICOP’s conspiracy theories provided the answer? This was: that it was all the fault of the media. According to SI editor Kendrick Frazier, “Media portrayal of the paranormal is often unchallenged, which contributes to the public’s lack of skepticism”.
Yet if this is so, it amounts to an admission of failure by CSICOP in one of its top priority areas, that of challenging the media and seeking to influence it. Over the years, it has tirelessly lobbied it, demanding the right to reply and filing complaints with the Federal Communications Committee. Seventeen pages of its booklet Manual for Local, Regional and National Groups are devoted to “Handling the Media and Public Relations”, compared to just three for “Scientific Investigation”.
CSICOP can hardly claim to have been ignored by the media. Its founding, the anti-astrology manifesto that preceded it, and its annual conferences have attracted nationwide publicity, most of it favourable, including major features in such high-profile outlets as The New York Times and Time Magazine. CSICOP’s house journal, The Skeptical Inquirer, easily outsells all the leading parapsychology journals combined.
Another conspiracy theory put forward in the SI poll report was that there was something wrong with the higher education system itself. “The word ‘higher’ in ‘higher education’ may soon need a new definition,” it complained, citing, with typical CSICOP sarcasm, various university departments where parapsychology and related topics were studied. These included Temple University’s “Center for Frontier Science”, University of Virginia’s “Division of Personality Studies” and the new Chair at Lund, Sweden, in Parapsychology and Hypnology (but not, as CSICOP seems to think, clairvoyance).
Not mentioned is the fact that one of these (University of Virginia) has been carrying out strictly scientific investigations into several areas of claimed paranormality, notably reincarnation, since long before CSICOP was born. Thus we have a state of affairs in which CSICOP seems to be protesting against those who are actually doing what CSICOP claimed to have been set up to do – an unusual course of action for a purportedly “scientific” organisation.
There were many in 1976 who warmly welcomed the idea of submitting astrology and other areas on or beyond the fringes of science to strict scrutiny. The way proper science does this is by replication – that is, by repeating exactly what the claimant did. If it comes up with the same result, and continues to do so (as for instance in the numerous replications of the Ganzfeld telepathy/clairvoyance experiments) then the probability that the original claim is genuine, or at least deserves further study steadily becomes stronger. If on the other hand replications fail, as they probably would for claims of perpetual motion or a flat earth, probability drops to near absolute zero.
CSICOP has consistently failed to separate the possible and the probable from the improbable and the ridiculous, adopting a combine-harvester approach to the field of anomalies with the aim of chewing up the whole lot. This indiscriminate attempted destruction has not led to a refutation of any claim of the “paranormal”.
Indeed, CSICOP’s sole attempt at replication (of the “Mars Effect”) has left the Gauquelins’ original claim not only still unexplained but actually strengthened. Thirty years of “scientific investigation of claims of the paranormal” has had little effect, if any, on popular beliefs and has failed to advance our understanding of any of those anomalous experiences that seem, to judge from the various polls cited here including CSICOP’s own, to be as prevalent today as they were in 1976.
CSICOP, in short, has lost its Thirty Years’ War.
“Parapsychologists ask for nothing more than to have their experiments, their methods and their data examined without distortion or misrepresentation, without prejudice or predisposition,” says Richard Broughton, a former president of the Parapsychological Association (which is affiliated to the American Association for the Advancement of Science) in his book Parapsychology – The Controversial Science (1991). “But somewhere along the line CSICOP abandoned the objectively critical spirit of science and adopted a ‘stop at any cost’ approach towards any topic that it deems off-limits to science.” He adds, “Science is a marvelously self-correcting system. [It] does not need vigilantes to guard the gates.”
In his letter of resignation from CSICOP (October 29, 1977) its co-founder Marcello Truzzi made it clear how strong that link was:
“I see no way in which my original goals for our Committee can be met. These goals included objective inquiry prior to judgment and clear separation between the policies of the Committee and the American Humanist Association and The Humanist magazine.”
Twenty years later – within a few years of his premature and widely lamented death in 2003, aged 67 – he was considerably more forthright in an email (December 28, 1997) to British psi researcher Steve Hume:
“You asked me if CSICOP really does block inquiry. I very much think it has and still does. This to me is the main objection I have to so much CSICOP does and the way they do it, by acting not as mere attorneys for the orthodox but also pretending to be judge and jury for science.”
People are interested in paranormal experiences not, as Russell Targ once remarked, because they are reading about them, “but because they are having them”. And they would like them explained. There was hope in 1976 that CSICOP was about to do this, or at least make an honest effort to do so.
CSICOP has ceased to exist, it was announced in the January/February 2007 issue of The Skeptical Inquirer (SI), in an editorial entitled “New Directions for Skeptical Inquiry”.
It has been replaced by something called “The Center for Scientific Inquiry” [Ed Note: Now “The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry”] (CSI), the stated aims of which sound virtually identical to those of CSICOP.
So why the change? According to SI editor Kendrick Frazier one reason was simply that the ten-word title – in case you’ve forgotten, it was The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal – was too long, as I’m sure index compilers will agree.
Chairman Paul Kurtz (who headed CSICOP from start to finish and now heads CSI, no doubt for life) has more to say in his latest encyclical: “CSICOP has reached an historic juncture: the recognition that there is a crucial need to change our direction.” CSI’s mission, he adds, is not to be confined to the examination (i.e. rejection) of allegedly paranormal matters but “to deal with a wider range of questionable claims”. Sounds familiar?
It may be true that some of the easier targets (fraudulent mediums, useless therapies, proponents of creationism, etc.) have received well deserved pinpricks, yet the evidence for the core of paranormal phenomena studied by parapsychologists – telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, precognition – has been inflated almost to bursting point.
A recent meta-meta-analysis – that is to say a meta-analysis of all previous meta-analyses of each of the above areas – has come up with a probability that results were due to chance alone of one in 1.3×10 to the power of 104. That is a very big number; hardly an instance of “deflation”.
And how is astrology – CSICOP’s original target – doing after thirty years of organised scepticism? It is not included in the study mentioned above because few parapsychologists, if any, regard it as part of their field. Yet it is ironic that the one subject CSICOP attempted to investigate scientifically (failing abysmally, as I showed in Part 2 of this series) has actually increased in credibility as a result of its efforts.
The reputation of Michel Gauquelin, whose work the CSICOP team successfully replicated and then tried to pretend they hadn’t, has been substantially enhanced – and by a further irony it was Gauquelin who did some genuinely scientific investigation of the claims of traditional astrology and was less than impressed. (He once sent a horoscope to several astrologers for their opinions, of which he received a wide range, none of the astrologers giving a hint that the horoscope was that of a mass murderer).
CSICOP’s greatest achievement was to persuade much of the scientific community, the media, and the general public that it was a genuine scientific organisation devoted to a search for scientific truth. In reality, of course, it was nothing of the kind.
It was, and its successor no doubt still is, a vigilante-lobby group promoting the cause of fundamentalist secular humanism. This involves attacking religion in any form – the March/April 2007 SI is a special issue devoted to science and religion – yet CSICOP/CSI itself is a religious organisation in at least one sense of the word “religion”, as defined in The American Heritage Dictionary: “A cause, a principle or an activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion”.
Those involved in any kind of research into any of life’s unexplained mysteries, of which there are still plenty, should have this quote from that classic of honest reporting, Upton Sinclair’s Mental Radio hung on the wall:
It is foolish to be convinced without evidence,
but it is equally foolish to refuse to be convinced by real evidence.
Light, always, Leo.