Has CSICOP Lost the Thirty Years’ War?

Part 4: CSICOP Loses the Thirty Years War
by Guy Lyon Playfair

When CSICOP celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1996 the editor of its British publication The Skeptic, Wendy Grossman, made an observation that must have left her fellow skeptics somewhat depressed. “The key question after 20 years,” she wrote (New Scientist, 13 July 1996) “must be whether CSICOP’s existence has made any difference.” To judge from what she was seeing on TV and in the bookshops “the signal-to-noise ratio of junk to science has become much worse since then”. She also had to admit that “over the past 20 years, the things that CSICOP was founded to fight against have become much worse.” The war declared in 1976 against anything that could be labeled paranormal was, it seemed, not going well.

There was worse to come. Five years later a Gallup poll revealed a clear increase in belief in just about everything from haunted houses (up 13 percent on an earlier poll) and communication with the dead (10%) to psychic healing (8%) and reincarnation (4%).

Then in May 2006 the 30th anniversary of CSICOP coincided almost to the day with another nasty shock to the skeptical system – a new poll commissioned by Reader’s Digest in which more than 1,000 adults were questioned about their paranormal beliefs. This revealed remarkably high levels of belief in such matters such as knowing when somebody you can’t see is staring at you (68%), and knowing who is calling you before you pick up the phone (62%). More than half (52%) reported instances of premonition, often in dreams, while nearly a fifth (19%) claimed to have seen a ghost.

Worst of all for the skeptics was CSICOP’s own poll published in The Skeptical Inquirer (SI) (January/February 2006 issue). This focused on college students – 439 of them – because, the authors explained, “We assumed that higher education, as one of the few remaining bastions of critical thinking, would provide little room for pseudoscientific or paranormal beliefs”.

To test this over-optimistic assumption, questions were similar to those of the 2001 Gallup poll, the wording of some of them suggesting that CSICOP did not really understand what it was supposed to be investigating. For instance, students were asked if they believed in “clairvoyance, or the power of the mind to know the past and predict the future” (clairvoyance actually means seeing at a distance without the use of the known senses; predicting the future is usually known as prophecy or precognition).

An even more carelessly worded question concerned “psychic or spiritual healing or the power of the human mind to heal the body.” These are of course entirely separate matters, the latter being indisputable as any hypnotherapist or researcher who has carried out trials using a placebo has known for at least 200 years.

Elsewhere, separate questions were asked regarding “ESP” and “telepathy”, the questioners evidently being unaware that telepathy is an instance of ESP (a term rarely used nowadays by parapsychologists), and that one cannot by definition believe in one without believing in the other as well. So it is hard to see how CSICOP came up with a 28 percent belief level in “ESP” but only 24 percent for “telepathy”.

Anyway, results clearly showed that there was still plenty of room for “paranormal belief” at higher education level; belief levels for some questions being almost exactly the same as they were in the Gallup poll.

What the CSICOP pollsters must have found particularly unsettling was the fact that as the students’ educational levels increased, so did their paranormal belief levels for all fourteen subjects on which they were questioned. Dividing the students into five categories from Freshmen to Graduates, percentages of those described as Believers rose steadily from 23 percent to 26, 27, 31 and finally 34 percent for the graduates.

In other words, an American college education increases paranormal belief levels by nearly 50 percent. How could this be? It could be that the young people concerned were merely exercising their right to make their minds up on topics they might have studied or had personal experience of.

Or maybe another of CSICOP’s conspiracy theories provided the answer? This was: that it was all the fault of the media. According to SI editor Kendrick Frazier, “Media portrayal of the paranormal is often unchallenged, which contributes to the public’s lack of skepticism”.

Yet if this is so, it amounts to an admission of failure by CSICOP in one of its top priority areas, that of challenging the media and seeking to influence it. Over the years, it has tirelessly lobbied it, demanding the right to reply and filing complaints with the Federal Communications Committee. Seventeen pages of its booklet Manual for Local, Regional and National Groups are devoted to “Handling the Media and Public Relations”, compared to just three for “Scientific Investigation”.

CSICOP can hardly claim to have been ignored by the media. Its founding, the anti-astrology manifesto that preceded it, and its annual conferences have attracted nationwide publicity, most of it favourable, including major features in such high-profile outlets as The New York Times and Time Magazine. CSICOP’s house journal, The Skeptical Inquirer, easily outsells all the leading parapsychology journals combined.

Another conspiracy theory put forward in the SI poll report was that there was something wrong with the higher education system itself. “The word ‘higher’ in ‘higher education’ may soon need a new definition,” it complained, citing, with typical CSICOP sarcasm, various university departments where parapsychology and related topics were studied. These included Temple University’s “Center for Frontier Science”, University of Virginia’s “Division of Personality Studies” and the new Chair at Lund, Sweden, in Parapsychology and Hypnology (but not, as CSICOP seems to think, clairvoyance).

Not mentioned is the fact that one of these (University of Virginia) has been carrying out strictly scientific investigations into several areas of claimed paranormality, notably reincarnation, since long before CSICOP was born. Thus we have a state of affairs in which CSICOP seems to be protesting against those who are actually doing what CSICOP claimed to have been set up to do – an unusual course of action for a purportedly “scientific” organisation.

There were many in 1976 who warmly welcomed the idea of submitting astrology and other areas on or beyond the fringes of science to strict scrutiny. The way proper science does this is by replication – that is, by repeating exactly what the claimant did. If it comes up with the same result, and continues to do so (as for instance in the numerous replications of the Ganzfeld telepathy/clairvoyance experiments) then the probability that the original claim is genuine, or at least deserves further study steadily becomes stronger. If on the other hand replications fail, as they probably would for claims of perpetual motion or a flat earth, probability drops to near absolute zero.

CSICOP has consistently failed to separate the possible and the probable from the improbable and the ridiculous, adopting a combine-harvester approach to the field of anomalies with the aim of chewing up the whole lot. This indiscriminate attempted destruction has not led to a refutation of any claim of the “paranormal”.

Indeed, CSICOP’s sole attempt at replication (of the “Mars Effect”) has left the Gauquelins’ original claim not only still unexplained but actually strengthened. Thirty years of “scientific investigation of claims of the paranormal” has had little effect, if any, on popular beliefs and has failed to advance our understanding of any of those anomalous experiences that seem, to judge from the various polls cited here including CSICOP’s own, to be as prevalent today as they were in 1976.

CSICOP, in short, has lost its Thirty Years’ War.

See Part 5 below.