Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), formerly known as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), is a program within the U.S. non-profit organization Center for Inquiry (CFI), whose stated purpose is to ‘encourage the critical investigation of paranormal and fringe-science claims from a responsible, scientific point of view and disseminate factual information about the results of such inquiries to the scientific community and the public.’

CSI was founded in 1976 by skeptic and secular humanist Paul Kurtz to counter what he regarded as an uncritical acceptance of, and support for, paranormal claims by both the media and society in general. Its philosophical position is one of scientific skepticism. CSI’s fellows have included many notable scientists, Nobel laureates, philosophers, educators, authors, and celebrities. It is headquartered in Amherst, New York.

In the early 1970s, there was a significant upsurge of interest in the paranormal in the United States. This generated concern in some quarters, where it was seen as part of a growing tide of irrationalism. It was against this backdrop that CSICOP, as it was to become known, was officially launched by philosophy professor Paul Kurtz at a specially convened conference of the American Humanist Association (AHA) at the Amherst campus of the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1976. The previous year, Kurtz initiated a statement, ‘Objections to Astrology,’ which was endorsed by 186 scientists and published in the AHA’s newsletter, ‘The Humanist,’ of which Kurtz was then editor. In addition, according to Kurtz, the statement was sent to every newspaper in the United States and Canada.

The positive reaction to this statement encouraged Kurtz to invite ‘as many skeptical researchers as [he] could locate’ to the 1976 conference with the aim of establishing a new organization dedicated to examining critically a wide range of paranormal claims. Among those invited were Martin Gardner, Ray Hyman, James Randi, and Marcello Truzzi, all members of the Resources for the Scientific Evaluation of the Paranormal (RSEP), a fledgling group with similar objectives. Kurtz was successful in his aims; RSEP disbanded and its members, along with others such as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, B.F. Skinner, and Philip J. Klass joined Kurtz to form CSICOP.

CSI considers pseudoscience topics to include yogic flying, therapeutic touch, astrology, fire walking, voodoo, magical thinking, Uri Geller, alternative medicine, channeling, psychic hotlines and detectives, near-death experiences, unidentified flying objects (UFOs), the Bermuda Triangle, homeopathy, faith healing, and reincarnation. Its position on pseudoscience has been quoted favorably by the National Science Foundation.

Many of CSI’s activities are oriented towards the media. As CSI’s former executive director Lee Nisbet wrote in the 25th-anniversary issue of the group’s journal, ‘Skeptical Inquirer’: ‘CSICOP originated in the spring of 1976 to fight mass-media exploitation of supposedly ‘occult’ and ‘paranormal’ phenomena. The strategy was twofold: First, to strengthen the hand of skeptics in the media by providing information that ‘debunked’ paranormal wonders. Second, to serve as a ‘media-watchdog’ group which would direct public and media attention to egregious media exploitation of the supposed paranormal wonders. An underlying principle of action was to use the mainline media’s thirst for public-attracting controversies to keep our activities in the media, hence public eye.’

CSI changes its focus with the changing popularity and prominence of various aspects of what it considers to be pseudoscientific and paranormal belief. For example, as promoters of intelligent design have increased their efforts to have this teaching included in school curricula in recent years, CSI has stepped up its own attention to the subject, creating an ‘Intelligent Design Watch.’

An issue of particular concern to CSI are paranormal or pseudoscientific claims that may endanger people’s health or safety, such as the use of alternative medicine in place of science-based healthcare. Investigations by CSI and others, including consumer watchdog groups, law enforcement and government regulatory agencies, have shown that the sale of alternative medicines, paranormal paraphernalia, or pseudoscience-based products can be enormously profitable. CSI says this profitability has provided various pro-paranormal groups large resources for advertising, lobbying efforts, and other forms of advocacy, to the detriment of public health and safety. Other organizations concerned with health care claims include Quackwatch and the National Council Against Health Fraud.

As referenced by CSI member Martin Gardner, a maxim regularly put into practice by the organization is H. L. Mencken’s ‘one horse-laugh is worth a thousand syllogisms.’ ‘Skeptical Inquirer’ has carried such articles as reports on the success rate of past years’ tabloid ‘psychic predictions’ and coverage of the Australian Skeptics’ ‘Bent Spoon Awards’ (winners are notified by telepathy and must pick up their trophies by paranormal means).

The Independent Investigations Group (IIG) is a volunteer-based organization founded by James Underdown in 2000 at the Center for Inquiry-West (now Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles) in Hollywood. The IIG investigates fringe science, paranormal and extraordinary claims from a rational, scientific viewpoint, and disseminates factual information about such inquiries to the public. IIG offers a $50,000 prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. The IIG is involved in designing the test protocol, approving the conditions under which a test will take place, and in administering the actual test. All tests are designed with the participation and approval of the applicant.

In most cases, the applicant is asked to perform a simple preliminary demonstration of the claimed ability, which if successful is followed by the formal test. Associates of the IIG usually conduct both tests and preliminary demonstrations at their location in Hollywood. In 2011 the IIG announced an affiliate program, allowing other skeptic groups to form across the world which would have access to the $50,000 and the ability to test claimants. Affiliates are in Washington DC (IIG DC), Atlanta, GA (IIG Atlanta), Denver, CO (IIG Denver), San Francisco Bay Area (IIG SFBA) and Alberta, British Columbia (IIG Alberta).

An axiom often repeated among CSI members is the famous quote from Carl Sagan: ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.’ (This was based on an earlier quote by Marcello Truzzi, ‘An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof,’ who traced the idea back through the Principle of Laplace to the philosopher David Hume.) CSI members argue that none of the paranormal claims have met even the most minimal standards of scientific scrutiny.

CSI fellows (past and present) include: Isaac Asimov, Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Stephen Jay Gould, Douglas Hofstadter, Marvin Minsky, Bill Nye, Steven Pinker, James Randi, Carl Sagan, B. F. Skinner, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Marilyn vos Savant, and E. O. Wilson.

CSI’s activities have garnered criticism, in particular from individuals or groups that have been the focus of the organization’s attention. TV celebrity and claimed psychic Uri Geller, for example, was until recently in open dispute with the organization, filing a number of unsuccessful lawsuits against them. Some criticism has also come from within the scientific community and at times from within CSI itself. Marcello Truzzi, one of CSICOP’s co-founders, left the organization after only a short time, arguing that many of those involved ‘tend to block honest inquiry, in my opinion. Most of them are not agnostic toward claims of the paranormal; they are out to knock them. […] When an experiment of the paranormal meets their requirements, then they move the goal posts.’ Truzzi coined the term ‘pseudoskeptic’ to describe critics in whom he detected such an attitude.[25]

An early controversy concerned the so-called ‘Mars effect’: French statistician Michel Gauquelin’s claim that champion athletes are more likely to be born when the planet Mars is in certain positions in the sky. In late 1975, prior to the formal launch of CSICOP, astronomer Dennis Rawlins, along with Paul Kurtz, George Abel, and Marvin Zelen (all subsequent members of CSICOP) began investigating the claim. Rawlins, a founding member of CSICOP at its launch in 1976, resigned in early 1980 claiming that other CSICOP researchers had used incorrect statistics, faulty science, and outright falsification in an attempt to debunk Gauquelin’s claims. In an article for the pro-paranormal magazine ‘Fate,’ he wrote: ‘I am still skeptical of the occult beliefs CSICOP was created to debunk. But I have changed my mind about the integrity of some of those who make a career of opposing occultism.’ CSICOP’s Philip J. Klass responded by circulating an article to CSICOP members critical of Rawlins’ arguments and motives; Klass’s unpublished response, refused publication by ‘Fate,’ itself became the target for further criticism.

In 1977, an FBI raid on the offices of the Church of Scientology uncovered a project to discredit CSICOP (as it was then called) so that it and its publications would cease criticism of ‘Dianetics’ and Scientology. This included forging a CIA memo and sending it to media sources, including ‘The New York Times,’ to spread rumors that CSICOP was actually a front group for the CIA. A letter from CSICOP founder Paul Kurtz was forged to discredit him in the eyes of parapsychology researchers.

In 2004, CSICOP was accused of scientific misconduct over its involvement in the Discovery Channel’s test of the ‘girl with X-ray eyes,’ Natasha Demkina. In a self-published commentary, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Brian Josephson criticized the test and evaluation methods and argued that the results should have been deemed ‘inconclusive’ rather than judged in the negative. Josephson, the director of the University of Cambridge’s ‘Mind–Matter Unification Project,’ questioned the researchers’ motives saying, ‘On the face of it, it looks as if there was some kind of plot to discredit the teenage claimed psychic by setting up the conditions to make it likely that they could pass her off as a failure.’

Ray Hyman, one of the three researchers who designed and conducted the test, published a response to this and other criticisms, and CSI’s ‘Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health’ also published a detailed response to these and other objections, saying that biasing the odds against Natasha was appropriate because her claims were unlikely to be true: ‘I decided against setting the critical level at seven because this would require Natasha to be 100% accurate in our test. We wanted to give her some leeway. More important, setting the critical value at seven would make it difficult to detect a true effect. On the other hand, I did not want to set the critical value at four because this would be treating the hypothesis that she could see into people’s bodies as if it were highly plausible. The compromise was to set the value at five.’

On a more general level, CSI has been accused of pseudoskepticism (a position which appears to be that of skepticism but which in reality fails to be so, for whatever reason) and an overly dogmatic and arrogant approach based on a priori convictions. It has been suggested that their aggressive style of skepticism could discourage scientific research into the paranormal. Astronomer Carl Sagan wrote on this: ‘Have I ever heard a skeptic wax superior and contemptuous? Certainly. I’ve even sometimes heard, to my retrospective dismay, that unpleasant tone in my own voice. There are human imperfections on both sides of this issue. Even when it’s applied sensitively, scientific skepticism may come across as arrogant, dogmatic, heartless, and dismissive of the feelings and deeply held beliefs of others … CSICOP is imperfect. In certain cases [criticism of CSICOP] is to some degree justified. But from my point of view CSICOP serves an important social function – as a well-known organization to which media can apply when they wish to hear the other side of the story, especially when some amazing claim of pseudoscience is judged newsworthy … CSICOP represents a counterbalance, although not yet nearly a loud enough voice, to the pseudoscience gullibility that seems second nature to so much of the media.’

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