Has CSICOP Lost the Thirty Years’ War?

Part 6: CSICOP No More!
by Guy Lyon Playfair

CSICOP has ceased to exist, it was announced in the January/February 2007 issue of The Skeptical Inquirer (SI), in an editorial entitled “New Directions for Skeptical Inquiry”.

It has been replaced by something called “The Center for Scientific Inquiry” [Ed Note: Now “The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry”] (CSI), the stated aims of which sound virtually identical to those of CSICOP.

So why the change? According to SI editor Kendrick Frazier one reason was simply that the ten-word title – in case you’ve forgotten, it was The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal – was too long, as I’m sure index compilers will agree.

Chairman Paul Kurtz (who headed CSICOP from start to finish and now heads CSI, no doubt for life) has more to say in his latest encyclical: “CSICOP has reached an historic juncture: the recognition that there is a crucial need to change our direction.” CSI’s mission, he adds, is not to be confined to the examination (i.e. rejection) of allegedly paranormal matters but “to deal with a wider range of questionable claims”. Sounds familiar?

What exactly is new? CSICOP spent thirty years examining questionable claims of all kinds, or at least claiming to examine them, as described below. One can hardly imagine how the range of its targets could have been wider, in keeping with the grandeur of its vision. “We viewed ourselves as the defenders of the Enlightenment,” Kurtz recalls with typical hubris, adding that “the ‘paranormal’ has been deflated in field after field”.

In short, Western civilisation has been saved from collapse thanks to the crusade spearheaded by Chairman Kurtz and his fearless colleagues from the Ministry of Truth out there in Amherst, NY.

It may be true that some of the easier targets (fraudulent mediums, useless therapies, proponents of creationism, etc.) have received well deserved pinpricks, yet the evidence for the core of paranormal phenomena studied by parapsychologists – telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, precognition – has been inflated almost to bursting point.

A recent meta-meta-analysis – that is to say a meta-analysis of all previous meta-analyses of each of the above areas – has come up with a probability that results were due to chance alone of one in 1.3×10 to the power of 104. That is a very big number; hardly an instance of “deflation”.

And how is astrology – CSICOP’s original target – doing after thirty years of organised scepticism? It is not included in the study mentioned above because few parapsychologists, if any, regard it as part of their field. Yet it is ironic that the one subject CSICOP attempted to investigate scientifically (failing abysmally, as I showed in Part 2 of this series) has actually increased in credibility as a result of its efforts.

The reputation of Michel Gauquelin, whose work the CSICOP team successfully replicated and then tried to pretend they hadn’t, has been substantially enhanced – and by a further irony it was Gauquelin who did some genuinely scientific investigation of the claims of traditional astrology and was less than impressed. (He once sent a horoscope to several astrologers for their opinions, of which he received a wide range, none of the astrologers giving a hint that the horoscope was that of a mass murderer).

CSICOP’s greatest achievement was to persuade much of the scientific community, the media, and the general public that it was a genuine scientific organisation devoted to a search for scientific truth. In reality, of course, it was nothing of the kind.

It was, and its successor no doubt still is, a vigilante-lobby group promoting the cause of fundamentalist secular humanism. This involves attacking religion in any form – the March/April 2007 SI is a special issue devoted to science and religion – yet CSICOP/CSI itself is a religious organisation in at least one sense of the word “religion”, as defined in The American Heritage Dictionary: “A cause, a principle or an activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion”.

As I have said earlier, there is no harm in being a lobby group, and in a free society one has the right to be agnostic, atheist, religious, or plain (if harmlessly) crazy. What one does not have the right to do is deceive the public, which CSICOP did throughout its 30-year life span when, rather than carefully plucking the weeds from the paranormal garden, it tried to combine-harvester the whole thing, luckily getting stuck before it could do any lasting damage.

Those involved in any kind of research into any of life’s unexplained mysteries, of which there are still plenty, should have this quote from that classic of honest reporting, Upton Sinclair’s Mental Radio hung on the wall: