Part 5: CSICOP’s Stalinist Godfather
by Guy Lyon Playfair
People are interested in paranormal experiences not, as Russell Targ once remarked, because they are reading about them, “but because they are having them”.
CSICOP’s single parent was the American Humanist Association (AHA), Paul Kurtz, editor of its journal The Humanist becoming one of CSICOP’s first co-chairmen. One might assume, therefore, that its aims were similar to those of its progenitor.
Yet what exactly is humanism? The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “a system of thought that centers on human beings and their values, capacities and worth”, which sounds harmless enough. However, “humanism” seems to be one of those words of which Humpty Dumpty memorably remarked “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”, and choices of meaning within the AHA membership have ranged from the tolerant and open-minded to the bigoted and dogmatic.
An example of the former was given by AHA president in the early fifties Lloyd Morain: “Humanism is distinguished from authoritarian systems in that it offers no absolutely certain truths. Humanism would be false in itself if it drew up a final and dogmatic set of propositions and demanded that they should be accepted.” (Humanism as the Next Step, 1954)
Oliver Reiser, another humanist prominent in the 1950s, expressed an equally open-minded (and prescient) attitude towards at least one area of the “paranormal”:
“It is becoming clear with each passing decade that the explanation of psi phenomena requires a completely integrated philosophy, one which, when it appears, will seem quite fantastic from the viewpoint of present-day science.” He added that physicists were getting used to “forces quite unfamiliar” and were “already conditioned to revolutionary discoveries which upset old ideas… psi phenomena could be but one more upheaval in a century of upheavals.” (The Integration of Human Knowledge, 1958).
So far so good, yet other attitudes in the AHA soon prevailed, and psi phenomena (telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, and precognition) soon became taboo, as did even the study of them. As early as 1955 The Humanist (15;4) published a scurrilous attack on the most distinguished parapsychologist of the time, J. B. Rhine, virtually accusing him of being mentally deranged. How come this sudden U-turn in humanist attitudes?
A persuasive explanation is to be found in a 28-page typewritten document entitled “The American Humanist Association: Its Resistance to Parapsychology, Quantum Consciousness, and Paraphysical Processes.” The authors are anonymous and there is no heading other than the words, “Report No. 2, June 15, 1977”. It is written in the dry, deadpan prose favoured by writers of reports for intelligence agencies, one or other of which – perhaps the CIA, which was taking an active interest in psi in the seventies – can be assumed to have commisioned it. (Who else would?).
The report is thoroughly researched and extensively referenced, the authors having “surveyed the entire production of The Humanist since its inception in 1941 through May/June 1977 in an effort to fathom the resistance of the AHA to paranormal functioning.” According to them, “even the most open-minded review of the written production of the AHA and the Committee (i.e. CSICOP) easily established that some 80 percent is negative propaganda against parapsychology and individuals involved in it”, while the policy of the AHA journal had “clearly and inexorably led to establishing the fundamentals of Marxist materialism” and had “equally inexorably sought the disestablishment of any non-material possibilities” (even those of quantum theory).
The authors had no difficulty in naming the most likely source of this hard-line policy. Discussions with past and present AHA members and a thorough review of all AHA literature “indicate that the AHA since 1948 has been dominated by the beliefs, financial influence, and political orientation of one Corliss Lamont.” Corliss who?, some may ask.
Corliss Lamont (1902-95) was a radical philosopher, author, civil rights campaigner and wealthy heir (his father was a partner in the J. P. Morgan banking firm). He was also a lifelong admirer of Stalin. He made the first of several visits to the Soviet Union in the early thirties and wrote glowingly of his experiences in “the new world of the twentieth century”. Such optimistic views were not uncommon at the time, being shared by the likes of G. Bernard Shaw and André Gide, but they were less common in the 1970s following the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
However, the authors of Report No. 2 noted that “a survey of Lamont’s writings up through 1974 reflects his beliefs and he has not shifted from them significantly since his first travels to the Soviet Union”. He was, they said, “an unabashed admirer of Soviet thinking” whose writings included a book hopefully entitled You Might Like Socialism – A Way of Life for Modern Man (1939), four books and nine pamphlets on Soviet matters; one of which, The Myth of Soviet Aggression was published just three years before Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest. He ran for the U.S. Senate for the American Labor Party (1952) and the Independent Socialist Party (1958). He was named “Humanist of the Year” in 1977, and President Emeritus of the AHA in 1992.
The notorious House Special Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) may have got it right for once when it named Lamont as “probably the most persistent propagandist for the Soviet Union to be found anywhere in the United States”. What he chose the word humanism to mean was clearly that of the Marxist dialectical-materialist variety – neither more nor less – in which there is no room for any kind of parapsychological phenomenon or indeed non-materialism of any kind.
Lamont’s influence on the AHA was considerable, according to the authors of Report No. 2: “It is alleged that his contributions may total some fifty percent of the total budget.” Moreover, he seems to have been responsible for the distinctly Kremlin-like atmosphere that built up within the AHA. “Prominent officers of the AHA remain prominent only insofar as they conform to Lamont’s policies. It is alleged by individuals who claim that they have been forced out of the inner functioning of the AHA that there does exist within the AHA a ‘party line’ and that non-conformists to it are maneuvered or forced by covert means to the sidelines or expelled from the association altogether.”
The departures of Marcello Truzzi and Dennis Rawlins shortly after this was written suggest that CSICOP was toeing the same party line. Indeed, to this day CSICOP can be described as, in effect, the militant wing of the AHA, acting as what author Brian Inglis has called “scientism’s hit-men”.
“Corliss Lamont was perfectly entitled to use The Humanist as a Marxist propaganda sheet; it was courageous of him to do so, in fact, in the McCarthy era”, Inglis wrote (CSICOP, unpublished manuscript, c. 1985). “But it was surely unhealthy for CSICOP to play his game. And how dirtily it was played!” He gives examples of dirty tricks used by the hit-men including smear campaigns against parapsychologists associated (even distantly) to religious cults, harrassing phone calls to scientists sympathetic towards psi research, and that classic ploy of the debater who has run out of arguments – the ad hominem attack. Such antics prompted Bernard Dixon, the generally sceptical editor of New Scientist to issue a rebuke which, sadly, needs repeating:
“Impatient rejection of the bizarre is counter-productive and antipathetic to the spirit of science.”
“Parapsychologists ask for nothing more than to have their experiments, their methods and their data examined without distortion or misrepresentation, without prejudice or predisposition,” says Richard Broughton, a former president of the Parapsychological Association (which is affiliated to the American Association for the Advancement of Science) in his book Parapsychology – The Controversial Science (1991). “But somewhere along the line CSICOP abandoned the objectively critical spirit of science and adopted a ‘stop at any cost’ approach towards any topic that it deems off-limits to science.” He adds, “Science is a marvelously self-correcting system. [It] does not need vigilantes to guard the gates.”
Leaving aside the question of whether CSICOP ever had such an objectively critical spirit, it seems clear that with the arrival on the humanist scene of Corliss Lamont, the AHA took a distinctly “stop at any cost” approach to any phenomenon, or rather claim for a phenomenon not explicable in Marxist-materialist terms. As for CSICOP, it has not severed the umbilical cord that links it to the AHA. In his letter of resignation from CSICOP (October 29, 1977) its co-founder Marcello Truzzi made it clear how strong that link was:
“I see no way in which my original goals for our Committee can be met. These goals included objective inquiry prior to judgment and clear separation between the policies of the Committee and the American Humanist Association and The Humanist magazine.”
Twenty years later – within a few years of his premature and widely lamented death in 2003, aged 67 – he was considerably more forthright in an email (December 28, 1997) to British psi researcher Steve Hume:
“You asked me if CSICOP really does block inquiry. I very much think it has and still does. This to me is the main objection I have to so much CSICOP does and the way they do it, by acting not as mere attorneys for the orthodox but also pretending to be judge and jury for science.”
People are interested in paranormal experiences not, as Russell Targ once remarked, because they are reading about them, “but because they are having them”. And they would like them explained. There was hope in 1976 that CSICOP was about to do this, or at least make an honest effort to do so.
It didn’t. CSICOP, as its co-founder admitted with his characteristic honesty in the message quoted above, has increasingly come to resemble what it may always have intended to be from the outset of its Thirty Years War that followed Truzzi’s resignation – the Campaign for the Suppression of Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.
See Part 6 below.