Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

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Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
Abbreviation CSI
Formation 1976
Type Nonprofit organization
Purpose Skeptical inquiry of paranormal claims
Headquarters Amherst, New York
Region served Worldwide
Chair Eddie Tabash
Website csicop.org

The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), formerly known as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), is a program within the U.S. non-profit organization Center for Inquiry (CFI), whose stated purpose is to "encourage the critical investigation of paranormal and fringe-science claims from a responsible, scientific point of view and disseminate factual information about the results of such inquiries to the scientific community and the public."[1] CSI was founded in 1976 by Paul Kurtz to counter what he regarded as an uncritical acceptance of, and support for, paranormal claims by both the media and society in general. Its philosophical position is one of scientific skepticism. CSI's fellows have included notable scientists, Nobel laureates, philosophers, psychologists, educators and authors.[2] It is headquartered in Amherst, New York.

History[edit]

The Banquet at the 1983 CSICOP Conference in Buffalo, NY

In the early 1970s, there was a significant upsurge of interest in the paranormal in the United States. This generated concern in some quarters, where it was seen as part of a growing tide of irrationalism.[3] In 1975 secular humanist philosopher and professor Paul Kurtz had previously initiated a statement, "Objections to Astrology," which was co-written with Bart Bok (lead author) and Lawrence E. Jerome, and endorsed by 186 scientists including 19 Nobel laureates and published in the AHA's newsletter The Humanist,[3] of which Kurtz was then editor. In addition, according to Kurtz, the statement was sent to every newspaper in the United States and Canada. The positive reaction to this statement encouraged Kurtz to invite "as many skeptical researchers as [he] could locate" to the 1976 conference with the aim of establishing a new organization dedicated to examining critically a wide range of paranormal claims.[4] Amongst those invited were Martin Gardner, Ray Hyman, James Randi, and Marcello Truzzi, all members of the Resources for the Scientific Evaluation of the Paranormal (RSEP), a fledgling group with objectives similar to those CSI would subsequently adopt.[3]

RSEP disbanded and its members, along with others such as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, B.F. Skinner, and Philip J. Klass joined Kurtz, Randi, Gardner and Hyman to form the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, or CSICOP.[5] Kurtz, Randi, Gardner and Hyman took seats on the executive board.[6] The organization was officially launched at a specially convened conference of the American Humanist Association (AHA) at the Amherst campus of the State University of New York at Buffalo on April 30 and May 1, 1976.[4] The organization would be funded with donations and sales of their magazine, Skeptical Inquirer.[6]

Name[edit]

Paul Kurtz was inspired by the Belgian Comité Para (founded in 1949), which full name was Comité Belge pour l'Investigation Scientifique des Phénomènes Réputés Paranormaux ("Belgian Committee for Scientific Investigation of Purported Paranormal Phenomena").[7] When the organization was formed in 1976, the original name proposed was "Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and Other Phenomena" which was shortened to "Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal." The initial acronym, "CSICP" was difficult to pronounce and so was changed to "CSICOP." According to James Alcock, it was never intended to be "Psi Cop", a nickname that some of the group's detractors adopted.[8]

On 30 November 2006, the organization further shortened its name to "Committee for Skeptical Inquiry" ("CSI", pronounced C-S-I.)[9] The reasons for the change were to create a name that is shorter and more "media-friendly", to remove "paranormal" from the name, and to reflect more accurately the actual scope of the organization with its broader focus on critical thinking, science, and rationality in general, and because "it includes the root words of our magazine's title, the Skeptical Inquirer".[10]

Position on pseudoscience[edit]

CSI considers pseudoscience topics to include yogic flying, therapeutic touch, astrology, fire walking, voodoo, magical thinking, Uri Geller, alternative medicine, channeling, psychic hotlines and detectives, near-death experiences, unidentified flying objects (UFOs), the Bermuda Triangle, homeopathy, faith healing, and reincarnation. Its position on pseudoscience has been quoted favorably by the National Science Foundation.[11]

Activities[edit]

According to CSI's charter, in order to carry out its major objectives the Committee:

  1. maintains a network of people interested in critically examining paranormal, fringe science, and other claims, and in contributing to consumer education;
  2. prepares bibliographies of published materials that carefully examine such claims;
  3. encourages research by objective and impartial inquiry in areas where it is needed;
  4. convenes conferences and meetings;
  5. publishes articles that examine claims of the paranormal;
  6. does not reject claims on a priori grounds, antecedent to inquiry, but examines them objectively and carefully.

CSI conducts and publishes investigations into Bigfoot and UFO sightings, psychics, astrologers, alternative medicine, religious cults, and paranormal or pseudoscientific claims.

CSI has also helped to support local grassroot efforts, such as SkeptiCamp community-organized conferences.[12]

Media response[edit]

Many of CSI's activities are oriented towards the media. As CSI's former executive director Lee Nisbet wrote in the 25th-anniversary issue of the group's journal, Skeptical Inquirer:

CSICOP originated in the spring of 1976 to fight mass-media exploitation of supposedly "occult" and "paranormal" phenomena. The strategy was twofold: 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 mainline media's thirst for public-attracting controversies to keep our activities in the media, hence public eye.[13]

This involvement with mass media continues to the present day with, for example, CSI founding the Council for Media Integrity in 1996, as well as co-producing a TV documentary series Critical Eye hosted by William B. Davis (the actor who played the Smoking Man in The X-Files). CSI members can also be seen regularly in the mainstream media offering their perspective on a variety of paranormal claims, and in 1999 Joe Nickell was appointed special consultant on a number of investigative documentaries for the BBC. In its capacity as a media-watchdog, CSI has “mobilized thousands of scientists, academics and responsible communicators” to criticize what it regards as “media's most blatant excesses.” While much of this criticism has focused on factual TV programming or newspaper articles offering support for paranormal claims, CSI has also been critical of programs such as The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which its members believe portray skeptics and science in a bad light and help to promote belief in the paranormal. CSI’s website currently lists the email addresses of over ninety U.S. media organizations and encourages visitors to “directly influence” the media by contacting “the networks, the TV shows and the editors responsible for the way [they portray] the world.”

Following pseudoscientific and paranormal belief trends[edit]

CSI changes its focus with the changing popularity and prominence of various aspects of what it considers to be pseudoscientific and paranormal belief. For example, as promoters of intelligent design have increased their efforts to have this teaching included in school curricula in recent years, CSI has stepped up its own attention to the subject, creating an "Intelligent Design Watch" website[14] and publishing numerous articles on evolution and intelligent design in Skeptical Inquirer and on the Internet.

Health and safety[edit]

An issue of particular concern to CSI are paranormal or pseudoscientific claims that may endanger people's health or safety, such as the use of alternative medicine in place of science-based healthcare. Investigations by CSI and others, including consumer watchdog groups, law enforcement and government regulatory agencies,[15] have shown that the sale of alternative medicines, paranormal paraphernalia, or pseudoscience-based products can be enormously profitable. CSI says this profitability has provided various pro-paranormal groups large resources for advertising, lobbying efforts, and other forms of advocacy, to the detriment of public health and safety. Other organizations concerned with health care claims include Quackwatch and the National Council Against Health Fraud.

Humor[edit]

As referenced by CSI member Martin Gardner, a maxim regularly put into practice by the organization is H. L. Mencken's "one horse-laugh is worth a thousand syllogisms."[16] Skeptical Inquirer has carried such articles as reports on the success rate of past years' tabloid "psychic predictions" and coverage of the Australian Skeptics' "Bent Spoon Awards" (winners are notified by telepathy and must pick up their trophies by paranormal means).

Independent Investigation Group[edit]

The Independent Investigations Group (IIG) is a volunteer-based organization founded by James Underdown in January 2000 at the Center for Inquiry-West (now Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles) in Hollywood, California. The IIG investigates fringe science, paranormal and extraordinary claims from a rational, scientific viewpoint, and disseminates factual information about such inquiries to the public.

IIG offers a $50,000 prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.[17] The IIG is involved in designing the test protocol, approving the conditions under which a test will take place, and in administering the actual test. All tests are designed with the participation and approval of the applicant. In most cases, the applicant is asked to perform a simple preliminary demonstration of the claimed ability, which if successful is followed by the formal test. Associates of the IIG usually conduct both tests and preliminary demonstrations at their location in Hollywood.

In 2011 the IIG announced an affiliate program, allowing other skeptic groups to form across the world which would have access to the $50,000 and the ability to test claimants. Affiliates are in Washington DC (IIG DC), Atlanta, GA (IIG Atlanta), Denver, CO (IIG Denver), San Francisco Bay Area (IIG SFBA) and Alberta, Canada (IIG Alberta).

Humanism[edit]

CSI is a member organization of the International Humanist and Ethical Union and endorses the Amsterdam Declaration on the principles of modern secular humanism.

Awards to fellows[edit]

CSI awards the Robert P. Balles Annual Prize in Critical Thinking. Andrew Skolnick and CSI fellows Ray Hyman and Joe Nickell shared the first award for their 2005 reports on CSICOP's testing of Natasha Demkina, a girl who claimed to have X-ray eyes.[18]

Publications[edit]

Main article: Skeptical Inquirer

CSI publishes the magazine Skeptical Inquirer, containing articles on skepticism, pseudo-science and the paranormal, as well as reports on experiments conducted to test alleged paranormal phenomena. Skeptical Inquirer was founded by Marcello Truzzi, under the name The Zetetic and retitled after a few months under the editorship of Kendrick Frazier, former editor of Science News. Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope calls Skeptical Inquirer "one of the nation's leading antifruitcake journals".[19] In addition, it publishes Skeptical Briefs, a quarterly newsletter published for associate members.[20]

Standards of evidence[edit]

An axiom often repeated among CSI members is the famous quote from Carl Sagan: "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."[21] (This was based on an earlier quote by Marcello Truzzi "An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof",[22] who traced the idea back through the Principle of Laplace to the philosopher David Hume.)[23] CSI members argue that none of the paranormal claims have met even the most minimal standards of scientific scrutiny.

Umbrella organization[edit]

A transnational non-profit umbrella organization called the Center for Inquiry encompasses both CSI and the Council for Secular Humanism, as well as other organizations such as the Center for Inquiry - On Campus national youth group and the Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health. While these organizations share headquarters and some staff, they each have their own list of fellows and their own distinct mandates. CSI generally addresses questions of religion only in cases in which testable scientific assertions have been made (such as weeping statues or faith healing). The Council for Secular Humanism explicitly fosters humanism and secularism.

List of CSI fellows (past and present)[edit]

The inside front cover of each issue of the Skeptical Inquirer lists the CSI fellows.[24] (* denotes the Fellow is a member of the Executive Council)

Controversy and criticism[edit]

Uri Geller filed a number of unsuccessful lawsuits against CSICOP

CSI's activities have garnered criticism, in particular from individuals or groups that have been the focus of the organization's attention.[25] TV celebrity and claimed psychic Uri Geller, for example, was until recently in open dispute with the organization, filing a number of unsuccessful lawsuits against them.[26] Some criticism has also come from within the scientific community and at times from within CSI itself. Marcello Truzzi, one of CSICOP's co-founders, left the organization after only a short time, arguing that many of those involved “tend to block honest inquiry, in my opinion. Most of them are not agnostic toward claims of the paranormal; they are out to knock them. [...] When an experiment of the paranormal meets their requirements, then they move the goal posts.”[27] Truzzi coined the term pseudoskeptic to describe critics in whom he detected such an attitude.[28]

Mars effect[edit]

An early controversy concerned the so-called Mars effect: French statistician Michel Gauquelin’s claim that champion athletes are more likely to be born when the planet Mars is in certain positions in the sky. In late 1975, prior to the formal launch of CSICOP, astronomer Dennis Rawlins, along with Paul Kurtz, George Abel and Marvin Zelen (all subsequent members of CSICOP) began investigating the claim. Rawlins, a founding member of CSICOP at its launch in May 1976, resigned in early 1980 claiming that other CSICOP researchers had used incorrect statistics, faulty science, and outright falsification in an attempt to debunk Gauquelin’s claims. In an article for the pro-paranormal magazine Fate, he wrote: "I am still skeptical of the occult beliefs CSICOP was created to debunk. But I have changed my mind about the integrity of some of those who make a career of opposing occultism."[29] CSICOP's Philip J. Klass responded by circulating an article to CSICOP members critical of Rawlins' arguments and motives;[30] Klass's unpublished response, refused publication by Fate, itself became the target for further criticism.

Attempt by Church of Scientology to discredit[edit]

In 1977, an FBI raid on the offices of the Church of Scientology uncovered a project to discredit CSICOP (as it was then called) so that it and its publications would cease criticism of Dianetics and Scientology. This included forging a CIA memo and sending it to media sources, including The New York Times, to spread rumors that CSICOP was actually a front group for the CIA. A letter from CSICOP founder Paul Kurtz was forged to discredit him in the eyes of parapsychology researchers.[31]

Natasha Demkina[edit]

In 2004, CSICOP was accused of scientific misconduct over its involvement in the Discovery Channel's test of the "girl with X-ray eyes," Natasha Demkina. In a self-published commentary, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Brian Josephson criticized the test and evaluation methods and argued that the results should have been deemed "inconclusive" rather than judged in the negative. Josephson, the director of the University of Cambridge's Mind–Matter Unification Project, questioned the researchers' motives saying, "On the face of it, it looks as if there was some kind of plot to discredit the teenage claimed psychic by setting up the conditions to make it likely that they could pass her off as a failure."[32] Ray Hyman, one of the three researchers who designed and conducted the test, published a response to this and other criticisms,[33] [34] and CSI's Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health[35] also published a detailed response to these and other objections, saying that the choice of critical level was appropriate because her claims were unlikely to be true: "I decided against setting the critical level at seven because this would require Natasha to be 100% accurate in our test. We wanted to give her some leeway. More important, setting the critical value at seven would make it difficult to detect a true effect. On the other hand, I did not want to set the critical value at four because this would be treating the hypothesis that she could see into people’s bodies as if it were highly plausible. The compromise was to set the value at five."[34][36]

General criticism and reply[edit]

On a more general level, proponents of parapsychology have accused CSI of pseudoskepticism and an overly dogmatic and arrogant approach based on a priori convictions. A 1992 article in The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, an organ for the Parapsychological Association, suggests that CSI's aggressive style of skepticism could discourage scientific research into the paranormal.[37] Astronomer Carl Sagan wrote on this in 1995:

Have I ever heard a skeptic wax superior and contemptuous? Certainly. I've even sometimes heard, to my retrospective dismay, that unpleasant tone in my own voice. There are human imperfections on both sides of this issue. Even when it's applied sensitively, scientific skepticism may come across as arrogant, dogmatic, heartless, and dismissive of the feelings and deeply held beliefs of others ... CSICOP is imperfect. In certain cases [criticism of CSICOP] is to some degree justified. But from my point of view CSICOP serves an important social function – as a well-known organization to which media can apply when they wish to hear the other side of the story, especially when some amazing claim of pseudoscience is judged newsworthy ... CSICOP represents a counterbalance, although not yet nearly a loud enough voice, to the pseudoscience gullibility that seems second nature to so much of the media.[38]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "CSICOP website". CSICOP. Retrieved 2006-06-21.  Statement from the heading of the website.
  2. ^ Kurtz, Paul. (1996). Skepticism and the Paranormal. In Gordon Stein (Ed.). The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. pp. 684-701. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-021-5
  3. ^ a b c The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Volume 86, No. 1, January 1992
  4. ^ a b Kurtz, Paul (July 2001). "A Quarter Century of Skeptical Inquiry My Personal Involvement". Skeptical Inquirer. Archived from the original on March 5, 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-01. 
  5. ^ "CSICOP website". CSICOP. Retrieved 2006-10-31. 
  6. ^ a b Higginbotham, Adam (November 7, 2014). "The Unbelievable Skepticism of the Amazing Randi". The New York Times.
  7. ^ Daniel Loxton (2013). "Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?". The Skeptics Society. p. 3. Retrieved 1 September 2014. 
  8. ^ Kurtz 2001, p. 42
  9. ^ "CSICOP becomes CSI after thirty years". CSI.[dead link]
  10. ^ Kendrick Frazier (4 December 2006). "It's CSI now, Not CSICOP". CSI website. CSI. Retrieved 1 September 2014. 
  11. ^ CSI is quoted by the National Science Foundation in its Indicators 2002 bienniel survey: Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding. Science Fiction and Pseudoscience. Relationships Between Science and Pseudoscience. What Is Pseudoscience?
  12. ^ "SkeptiCamp". Retrieved 2012-03-21. 
  13. ^ Nisbet, Lee (Nov–Dec 2001). "The Origins and Evolution of CSICOP; Science Is Too Important to Be Left to Scientists". Skeptical Inquirer. Retrieved 2006-06-22. [dead link]
  14. ^ http://www.csicop.org/intelligentdesignwatch/
  15. ^ "FDA Asks U.S. Marshals to Seize Dietary Supplements: Products Being Promoted With Drug Claims". U.S. Food and Drug Administration. September 6, 2006. Archived from the original on 2006-10-26. 
  16. ^ Quoted in Gardner, Martin (1981). Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus, Prometheus Books, ISBN 0-87975-144-4, pg. vii and xvi.
  17. ^ "IIG Challenge". Iigwest.org. Retrieved 2010-11-04. 
  18. ^ "CSICOP announces winners of the first Robert P. Ballez Prize" (– Scholar search). Skeptical inquirer 26 (3). 2006. [dead link]
  19. ^ "Are subliminal messages secretly embedded in advertisements?". The Straight Dope. 26 June 1987. Retrieved 2007-05-01. 
  20. ^ "Skeptical Briefs". Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-01. 
  21. ^ "Interview With Carl Sagan". NOVA Online. 
  22. ^ Marcello Truzzi (1978). "On the Extraordinary: An Attempt at Clarification". Zetetic Scholar 1 (1): 11. 
  23. ^ Marcello Truzzi. "On Some Unfair Practices towards Claims of the Paranormal". Skeptical Investigations. Archived from the original on 2007-04-28. Retrieved 2007-05-01. 
  24. ^ "The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry". Retrieved 2010-08-18. 
  25. ^ See, for instance, "The Campaign for Philosophical Freedom". Retrieved 13 August 2006. 
  26. ^ Truzzi, M (1996) from the Parapsychological Association newsletter http://66.221.71.68/psir.htm
  27. ^ http://blavatskyarchives.com/zeteticism.htm
  28. ^ "Marcello Truzzi, On Pseudo-Skepticism" Zetetic Scholar (1987) No. 12/13, 3-4.
  29. ^ Rawlins, Dennis (1981). "sTARBABY". FATE Magazine. Retrieved 2006-06-21.  Rawlins's account of the Mars Effect investigation
  30. ^ Klass, Philip J. (1981). "Crybaby". Retrieved 2010-12-03. 
  31. ^ Marshall, John (January 25, 1980). "Cult order sought to end scientists' criticism". Toronto Globe and Mail. 
  32. ^ Josephson, Brian. "Scientists' unethical use of media for propaganda purposes". tcm.phy.cam.ac.uk. Retrieved 2006-08-31. 
  33. ^ "Cause, Chance and Bayesian Statistics: A Briefing Document". abelard.org. Retrieved 2006-09-11. 
  34. ^ a b Hyman, Ray. "Statistics and the Test of Natasha". csicop.org. CSICOP. Retrieved 2013-08-31. 
  35. ^ "Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health". 
  36. ^ "Answer to Critics". CSMMH. Archived from the original on 2005-02-04. Retrieved 2006-09-11. 
  37. ^ The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Volume 86, No. 1, January 1992; pp. 20, 24, 40, 46, 51
  38. ^ Sagan, Carl (1995). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Random House. ISBN 0-394-53512-X. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]