Has CSICOP Lost the Thirty Years’ War?

Part 1: Birth of a Movement
by Guy Lyon Playfair

CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) [now simply CSI, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation] came into existence at the 1976 convention of the American Humanist Association (AHA) held in Buffalo, NY, from 30 April to 2 May.

Its two principal begetters, Professors Marcello Truzzi (sociology, Eastern Michigan University) and Paul Kurtz (philosophy, State University of New York) were both resolute sceptics with good track records as campaigners against the rapid spread of interest in occult and paranormal subjects that took place in the early 1970s following the publication of Colin Wilson’s best-seller The Occult (1971) and the dramatic appearance on the scene of Uri Geller.

In 1972, Truzzi had begun to publish an occasional newsletter, Explorations, renamed The Zetetic in 1974, and the following year he announced the formation of Resources for the Scientific Evaluation of the Paranormal (RSEP).

“I never really got off the ground beyond the announcement,” he would recall later, “because of what happened next.”

What happened next was an offer from Kurtz, whom he had not yet met, to collaborate on a major new venture. Kurtz, editor of the American Humanist Association (AHA) journal The Humanist, had published a strongly worded manifesto, “Objections to Astrology” (1974), signed by 186 scientists, including an impressive total of 18 Nobel laureates. Copies of the document were sent to every newspaper and magazine in the U.S. and Canada.

Kurtz clearly knew and approved of Truzzi’s fledgling journal and RSEP, and asked him to become co-chairman of CSICOP, and first editor of The Zetetic as the official CSICOP journal. Truzzi accepted the offer. So far, so good. Following the highly successful Buffalo meeting, CSICOP was up and running fast in all directions, especially towards the media which generally gave it favourable coverage.

Then things began to go badly wrong. It soon became evident that Truzzi and Kurtz did not see eye to eye on ways of combatting the rising tide of occultism. As Truzzi put it later, “the problem with CSICOP is that it has made debunking more important than impartial inquiry” (personal communication, 25 June 1987) and it seemed clear right from the start that while Truzzi was all in favour of impartial inquiry, Kurtz wasn’t.

There were already signs that CSICOP was becoming what Robert Anton Wilson called “The New Inquisition” in his book (1986) of that name. There were even genuine sceptics like the astronomer Carl Sagan who refused to sign the anti-astrology manfesto on the grounds that “statements contradicting borderline, folk or pseudoscience that appear to have an authoritarian tone can do more harm than good”.

Science writer Paul Feyerabend noted in Science and a Free Society (1978) that the wording of the manifesto (“Scientists in a variety of fields have become concerned about the increased acceptance of astrology in many parts of the world”) sounded chillingly familiar…

As the 15th century Pope Innocent VIII put it in the Papal Bull that kicked off the crusade against witches, real or imaginary, and led to countless deaths of innocent people, “It has indeed come to our ears … that in many parts of the world, persons … have strayed from the Catholic faith and abandoned themselves to devils.”

Truzzi was anything but authoritarian and was certainly no latter-day “Witchfinder General”. Indeed, one of his first acts as editor of The Zetetic was to commission an article criticising the anti-astrology manifesto, as his opinion of it was similar to Sagan’s. This act of open-mindedness and impartiality on Truzzi’s part led to rumours among members of the CSICOP Council that he was too soft on the paranormal. There was even a suggestion that he might be a “closet occultist”.

It was all getting rather nasty. What with one thing and another, barely a year after he had become co-chairman and journal editor, Truzzi resigned from both posts and eventually resigned altogether from CSICOP, concluding, in what must have been the understatement of the year, that “I have come to believe that Paul Kurtz does not completely share my goals”, including “objective inquiry prior to judgment”, and “a clear break with the AHA and its journal”. Despite its initial successes, CSICOP’s first year was not an entirely happy one.

And there was much worse to come…

See Part 2 below.