True skeptics, or blinkered debunkers (2004)

I recently profiled Martin Gardner, the premier skeptical writer of our time. It’s no accident that the bulk of the octogenarian author’s writings have appeared in Skeptical Inquirer, the house organ of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. A large, influential skeptic's group formed in 1976, CSICOP takes as its mandate the weeding out of pseudoscience from the garden of science.

As the most public body engaged in the debate on the paranormal, this organization has had fairly significant influence on the media and academic institutions, primarily through their many chapters throughout the US. CSICOP has signed on a number of major scientific figures onto its board, as well.

A fair number of the group’s members are professional and amateur magicians, like “The Amazing Randi” (The Amusing Randi to his detractors). This representation by magicians isn’t that odd, given that their profession relies on the same sort of perceptual tricks and misperceptions that CSICOP insists are behind claims of paranormal activity. CSICOP has cast doubt on many claims psychic phenomenon, by demonstrating how the same effects can be duplicated by trickery. Many of their targets, such as Uri Geller and his spoon-bending, pretty much wither under their gaze.

CSICOP’s raison d’être is mostly public relations work for a non-religious, materialistic viewpoint, meant to target the public at large, rather than professional scientists.

The organization’s publication, Skeptical Inquirer, is a kind of Consumer Reports of the mind, and there’s no denying it performs a public service by exposing the cranks, crackpots, and snake-oil salesman who work the New Age and fundamentalist sideshow circuit. But CSICOP doesn’t limit its animus to easy targets; it also goes after professional scientists at major universities as well.

Robert Jahn, former dean of engineering at Princeton, incurred their displeasure by investigating (and claiming evidence for) psychic phenomenon in the lab. When asked in a BBC interview that surely professional skeptics like CSICOP wouldn’t attack the character of scientists, rather than examine the evidence for such claims, Jahn responded wistfully that “they can, and they will.”

Despite the “research” tag in their name, actual research is of low priority for the Committee. In fact, CSICOP instituted a policy against doing investigative work. The organization relies on theoretical arguments against laboratory evidence for psychic phenomenon, rather than attempts to replicate such experiments.

Writer Robert Anton Wilson, who penned a blistering attack on the organization called The New Inquisition, jokes that CSICOP stands for the Committee for Slander, Invective and Calumny against Open-minded People.

Commenting on an article in Skeptical Inquirer, medical professor Louis Lasagna echoed Wilson, saying that “one can almost smell the fiery autos-da-fe's of Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition.” Engineering Professor Leonard Lewin noted that in Skeptical Inquirer articles, “the rhetoric and appeal to emotion seemed rather out of place.” Another professor wrote, “I cannot escape the conviction that those who control CSICOP are primarily bent upon the vilification of parapsychology and parapsychologists.”

Reading an anthology of SI articles, science fiction author Michael Chrichton “was disturbed by the intemperate tone of many writers” he admired. “There was a tendency to attribute the basest motives to their opponents.”

The average CSICOP member is an older white male professional in a science or engineering-related field (When I attended my first and last CSICOP meeting in the mid-nineties, I could see very few ethnic faces, and fewer still that appeared under 40 — and that’s in an audience of over 500). There are a few women in the ranks of CSICOP, but it’s pretty much an Old Caucasian Guys club. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, to quote Jerry Seinfeld.)

And it's some club. V.S. Naipaul once wrote a book called Among the Believers. Well, I was among the disbelievers, big time. From Bigfoot to the Kennedy assassination, CSICOP doesn't buy into any of it. That may be eminently reasonable when it comes to certain fringe topics — but even “magic bullets“ and hairy humanoids deserve a fair hearing.

One gets the sense that the members’ minds are made up well in advance, before they examine any evidence. (In fact, one of the group's co-founders, Marcello Truzzi, left because he found more reflex naysaying among the members than actual skepticism.

You may ask, what kind of a person puts such an emotional premium on disbelief? CSICOPers often comment on people's misguided need to believe in oddball things, from elves to Elvis. However, in their distaste for psychoanalysis (that's bunk too), CSICOP members seem somewhat blind to their own motivations.

As I said, CSICOP members are animated by a strong distaste for religion. Organized religion has arguably been one of the principal divisive forces in human history — we can give them that. But the debunkers go beyond an anticlerical posture into hard-core atheism. At the conference I attended, those in the audience were asked for a show of hands as to how many believed in the existence of God. To gradually building laughter, the CSICOP audience realized how homogenous their thinking was; not a single person raised a hand.

I suspect this indicates there's often as much a belief system among debunkers as there is among “believers.” Atheism has no more a logical foundation than blind faith — you can no more disprove than prove the existence a Supreme Being.

This non-show of hands gave me insight into the emotional reaction CSICOP members have to one of their pet targets for over-the-top contempt: unidentified flying objects. Not surprisingly, compelling physical evidence for UFOs (radar reports, film, etc.) studied by competent scientists such as astrophysicist Jacques Vallee, have never been adequately addressed by CSICOP. The reason, I believe, is that the idea of a superior intelligence from above hearkens back to the very thing that CSICOPers find most repellent: religion.

Often, the very reason people uncritically accept the existence of UFOs (without examining the evidence for or against) is essentially the same reason others so uncritically reject them: for their archetypal, mythic baggage.

God is dead, CSICOP has decided, and any bug-eyed monsters out there aren't doing so well either.

CSICOP presents itself as a scientific organization, but that depends on what you mean by science. The reality of the situation is, so-called scientific debates are often fraught with unacknowledged quasi-religious and socio-political baggage. The debunkers who are so adept at pointing out this mindset in others are blind to their own. Seen in this light, CSICOP is comprised mostly of people who have replaced one religion with another — scientism — and turned disbelief into a belief system in itself.

Again, this is not to say worthwhile work isn’t done by CSICOP. There is dangerous con-artistry out there from cults and money-mad gurus. And yes, science is under attack these days from pseudosciences, and various ethereal, feel-good, New Age philosophies.

But I would say the danger from such fringe beliefs is matched by the social fallout from a culture of naysaying, that refuses to investigate extraordinary claims.

There’s a possibility that ground has been gained by some illegitimate beliefs by default: science is in retreat from genuine anomalies, like psychic phenomenon, leaving such fringe topics largely in the hands of non-professionals. And here's where the non-researching negativists in CSICOP has done the most damage, in promoting a retreat from active investigation of extraordinary claims, and advocating the professional censure of the few qualified investigators.

We all have our cliques, our in-groups, both professionally and privately. But it is dangerous when any group is convinced it has a hotline to The Truth.

In weeding out the garden of science, CSICOP may only end up digging rational inquiry into a deeper hole.

Geoff Olson