Has CSICOP Lost the Thirty Years’ War?

Part 3: How Scientific is CSICOP?
by Guy Lyon Playfair

According to its title, CSICOP (The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) is engaged in the scientific investigation of claimed paranormality. But just how scientific is it?

For a start, it is headed not by a scientist but by a philosopher – Paul Kurtz – who has been Chairman since its founding in 1976. In the same period the The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) (whose stated aims, as noted in Part Two of this series, closely resemble those of CSICOP), has had ten presidents, seven of them professors, all elected by its Council, the 24 members of which were in turn all duly elected by the entire SPR membership.

According to a 1987 CSICOP fund-raising letter, its journal The Skeptical Inquirer (SI) is “the only major periodical in the world that examines paranormal and occult claims from a scientific viewpoint”. (Not true: the SPR’s peer-reviewed Journal and Proceedings have been doing this since 1882 and are still doing it).

The SI can hardly claim to be a scientific journal; as George Hansen noted in his detailed survey of CSICOP published in Journal of the American SPR (January 1992), “the magazine nearly always prints onlyone side of a controversy in its articles”, and “full papers from CSICOP’s critics almost never appear”. The SPR’s journal, on the other hand, frequently publishes vigorous debates on topics covereed by contributors, sometimes running for several issues, and is quite prepared to print a debunking article. (For a recent example, see my “The Return of Katharine Bates?” in its July 2005 issue).

As Hansen notes, only one member of CSICOP’s Board of Directors is a scientist, and none of its numerous Fellows and consultants have any voting rights. “Thus,” he adds, “nonscientific leadership controls CSICOP [and] this is reflected in the activities of the organisation.” It is indeed, even when those concerned do have scientific qualifications.

Here are a couple of recent examples from the U.K.: In April 1993, the SPR journal published an article by psychologist and CSICOP Fellow Susan Blackmore on alleged telepathy between identical twins. In her brief review of the relevant literature, she wrote that an earlier researcher, Aristide Esser, “did not provide evidence for simultaneous responses in twins”. This is in fact precisely what Esser did provide. He even printed an entire chart recording “to show how obvious the reactions are”. Although Blackmore noted that “no firm conclusions” could be drawn from her studydue to the small number of identical twins tested (just three pairs), her article has been cited as having disproved twin telepathy.

Moving the goalposts is a favourite CSICOP ploy – testing somebody for something they have never claimed to be able to do. A particularly blatant instance of this was the supposed testing of Natasha Demkina, the “Girl with X-ray Eyes” by two CSICOP Fellows, professors Ray Hyman and Richard Wiseman. (See “The Demkina File” on this site).

Another was the supposed test of “dream detective” Chris Robinson, one of whose claims is that he can dream in advance what object will be found in a sealed box. He agreed to do this for an episode of Arthur C.Clarke’s Mysterious Universe, yet on arriving at the studio he was asked to do something entirely different – to hold an object connected to a crime and describe the events and persons associated with it. This is known as psychometry, something Chris has never done nor claimed to be able to do, and although he was not entirely unsuccessful, viewers were clearly led to believe that he had no psychic powers at all despite the abundant evidence to the contrary. (See Chris Robinson’s website for a full account of this disgraceful episode).

These are examples of what parapsychologist Nancy Zingrone calls “gathering evidence to support an a priori commitment to the notion that all positive psi results are spurious and all methods which seem to show the presence of psi are flawed”. (Journal of Parapsychology, June 2002).

CSICOP is not a scientific society in the generally understood sense of the term. It is a lobby group. Jerome Clark, in New Age Encyclopedia (1990) describes it as “a popular movement and anti-paranormal lobbying group”, and also questions its claimed skepticism, noting that “its most persistent critic has been one who helped found the organisation, Marcello Truzzi, who holds that there is a distinction between skepticism (doubting) and debunking (denying) and that by this definition CSICOP is not a ‘skeptical’ operation”. Sociologist Harry Collins goes further, calling CSICOP “a scientific vigilante organisation”, insisting that “science can and must police itself without the help of self-appointed outsiders”.

So must psi research, and so it does. It is interesting to note that in both cases of major fraud in parapsychology yet revealed (those of S.G. Soal and Walter Levy), the perpetrators were exposed by their fellow researchers, with no need of outside help.

There is nothing wrong with being a lobby group and nobody expects a lobbyist to be strictly impartial. A lobby group, however, should not be mistaken for a scientific research organisation. CSICOP lobbies tirelessly, notably in academic and media circles, against what it sees as a threat to civilisation, as made clear in one of its fund-raising letters in 1985: “belief in the paranormal is still growing, and the dangers to our society are real”. Just what is meant by “paranormal” is never defined with any precision.

CSICOP manifestos usually reel off lists of everything from the Bermuda Triangle, Father Christmas, Abominable Snowpersons and Bigfeet to everything studied by parapsychologists. A 1980 book by a CSICOP founder member was subtitled “the Truth about Unicorns, Parapsychology and Other Delusions”, thus equating something for which there is no evidence at all (and which would not represent much of a threat to society if they did exist) with a subject for which voluminous evidence has been amassed for well over a century.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines paranormal as “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation”. Attacks against “the paranormal” per se imply that nothing as yet unexplained should be studied at all or even mentioned in public. If this attitude were to be made official science policy, much research in physics, biology, astronomy, medicine and many other subjects would simply grind to a halt, and we would never, for instance, have proved the existence of continental drift, which was way beyond scientific explanation when Alfred Wegener first put forward the idea in 1915.

To reject en bloc not only all unexplained, and by definition paranormal, phenomena (which this was for many years) but also to attack any serious attempt to explain them is scientifically indefensible.

As we shall see in Part 4 of this series, belief in “the paranormal” is still with us, even where CSICOP would not expect to find it, and civilisation has not collapsed as a result.

Has CSICOP lost its Thirty Years War?

See Part 4 below.