Has CSICOP Lost the Thirty Years’ War?

Part 2: The Gauquelin Effect
by Guy Lyon Playfair

The aim of CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) as spelled out by Paul Kurtz in the May-June issue of The Humanist, which he then edited, was “the critical investigation of paranormal and fringe science claims from a responsible, scientific point of view [and the dissemination of] factual information about the results of such enquiries to the scientific community and the public”.

This will sound familiar to the members of The Society for Psychical Research (SPR), the stated aim of which on its founding nearly 100 years before CSICOP (in 1882) was “to examine without prejudice or prepossession and in a scientific spirit those faculties of man, real or supposed, which appear to be inexplicable on any generally recognised hypothesis”. That is, what we would now call “the paranormal”.

The obvious difference between the ways in which these stated aims have been put into practice is that while the SPR investigates phenomena such as telepathy, psychokinesis and precognition, CSICOP investigates claims that such phenomena exist strongly implying – and as we shall see even admitting openly – that they can’t and therefore don’t.

While SPR’s journal regularly publishes peer reviewed articles both for and against the validity of what it investigates in the laboratory and in the field, one searches in vain the pages of The Skeptical Inquirer, the successor to The Zetetic, and not peer reviewed, for suggestions that there might be any truth in any claim for anything not explicable in materialistic terms.

Before CSICOP was founded an extraordinary claim had been made that called for thorough examination, since if true it would have far-reaching implications. This was that the position of a planet at the moment of birth had an influence on the future development of the baby. Sports champions, for example, tended to be born when Mars was at certain points in the sky far more often than chance would predict. The claimants, French psychologist, statistician and, ironically, debunker of many features of traditional pop astrology Michel Gauquelin and his wife Françoise, also a psychologist, had studied the birth data of more than 2,000 champions (and many times that number of non-champions), finding that 22 percent of the champions had been born with Mars “rising” or “transiting” when chance would only predict 17 percent – the exact figure for the non-champions. The size of the sample made the result highly significant statistically. Moreover, their findings had been replicated by a group of Belgian sceptics known as the Comité Para.

When the Gauquelins’ claim was mentioned by a contributor to The Humanist, Kurtz could hardly ignore it. This, surely, was just the kind of claim that his committee had been set up to investigate? He particularly wanted to debunk a claim involving astrology, having alleged that it had led to no less than 200 suicides and even had somewhing to do with the rise of fascism. And so followed CSICOP’s first attempt to replicate a paranormal claim according to accepted scientific practice. It was also to be its last.

It was a total disaster. The percentages in the large control sample studied by a CSICOP team turned out to be the same as those of the Gauquelins. The whole story of what followed was told in great detail in a 31-page article in Fate (October l982) with this editorial comment:

“They call themselves The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. In fact, they are a group of would-be debunkers who bungled their major investigation, falsified the results, covered up their errors and gave the boot to a colleague who threatened to tell the truth.”

These were serious charges to make against a supposedly scientific body, yet the author not only repeated them but added several more. These were presumably accurate, since the article was in fact written by the whistle-blowing colleague himself, astrophysicist and founder CSICOP member Dennis Rawlins.

Rawlins concluded his damning indictment by stating that while he remained sceptical about the phenomena that CSICOP was, as he put it “created to debunk” (an interesting admission from one who should know), he had changed his mind about “the integrity of those who make a career of opposing occultism”.

CSICOP’s reaction to the exposure of a scandal within its ranks, he added, was “not to eject the culprits but to eject those who expose them”.

The Fate revelations led to numerous defections from CSICOP. One of the first was New Zealander Richard Kamman, co-author with David Marks of The Psychology of the Psychic (1980) in which they discuss the persistence of false beliefs, noting that once formed, the belief in question “biases the observer to notice new information that confirms the belief, and to discount evidence to the contrary”. This, they said, was a “self-perpetuating mechanism” of belief-reinforcement and resistance to criticism.

This is certainly true of the more credulous “true believer”. Yet it is also true of the “true disbeliever”, and is a fair assessment of the psychology of the sceptic.

The last word on the Gauquelin affair should be left to the late Eric J. Dingwall, known to his SPR colleagues for both his extreme scepticism and his academic integrity. Asked for his opinion of the committee from which he had just resigned, he summed it up in one word: “Impossible!”

See Part 3 below.