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CSICOP and the Skeptics: An Overview

George P. Hansen

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Summary: The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) has become the most publicly visible institution engaged in the debate on the paranormal. Initially CSICOP was primarily a scholarly body but soon after its beginning it adopted a popular approach that fostered a more broadly based social movement.

ABSTRACT: The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) has become the most publicly visible institution engaged in the debate on the paranormal. Initially CSICOP was primarily a scholarly body but soon after its beginning it adopted a popular approach that fostered a more broadly based social movement. It actively promoted the formation of local societies with similar aims. Both CSICOP and the local groups have some distinguishing features. Prestigious scholars are affiliated with these or- ganizations, a disproportionate number of magicians are involved, the groups are dominated by men, and many members hold religious views that are antagonistic to the paranormal. Despite the name of the organization, actual research is a very low priority of the Committee. In fact, CSICOP instituted a policy against doing research itself. CSICOP's highest priority has been to influence the media. Its rhetoric and activities are designed to appeal to a broad audience rather than to scientists who investigate unusual or controversial phenomena. Recently, the Committee broadened its focus to include areas outside the paranormal.


In the last 15 years, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) (3) has become a major force in the debate on the paranormal. It has generated considerable attention, not only in the popular media but also in scientific forums. The readership of its magazine, the Skeptical Inquirer (SI), has grown to over 35,000 subscribers in 62 countries. CSICOP is now the most well-recognized institution commenting on the paranormal; it claims to receive scores of inquiries daily. A number of local groups have formed. Figures 1 and 2 illustrate the dramatic growth. The data suggest a social movement of considerable influence.

There are several reasons CSICOP has flourished. Much of the organi- zational success can be attributed to the dynamic leadership of philosopher Paul Kurtz, the publicity skills of magician James Randi, and the wide influence of writer Martin Gardner. Although none of these three are scientists, CSICOP has attracted prestigious scientists who serve as figureheads and increase the organization's visibility. A high priority has been given to the media, and CSICOP's style is geared for a broad audience rather than for practicing scientists who study the paranormal. In fact, after the first five years, CSICOP abandoned its own scientific research ("Policy on Sponsoring," 1982).

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Because of its rapid growth and the nature of its subject matter, the organization has received considerable attention-some positive (e.g:, Cornell, 1984; Hofstadter, 1982; Meyer, 1986; Otten, 1985; Schultz, 1986; Weisburd, 1991) and some neutral (Wallis, 1985; see also Kurtz, 1985a). But it is not surprising that the Committee has been involved in a number of heated controversies. These produced internal schisms and provoked rebukes from outsiders. A few examples will give a flavor of some of the disputes. In examining the scientific status of CSICOP, sociologists Pinch and Collins (1984) described the Committee as a "scientific-vigilante" organization (p. 539). Commenting on an article in "SI", medical professor Louis Lasagna (1984) wrote: "One can almost smell the fiery autos-da-fe' of Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition" (p. 12). Engineering professor Leonard Lewin (1979) noted that in SI articles "the rhetoric and appeal to emotion seemed rather out of place" (p. 9); Rockwell, Rockwell, and Rockwell (1978b) called CSICOP members "irrational rationalists" (see also Kurtz, 1978b; Rockwell, Rockwell, & Rockwell, 1978a). Sociologist Hans Sebald (1984) described contributors to "SI" as "combative propagandists" (p. 122). Adams (1987) compared CSICOP with the Cyclops; Robert Anton Wilson (1986) labeled CSICOP the "New Inquisition" and White (1979) called them "new disciples of scientism." McConnell (1987) wrote: "I cannot escape the conviction that those who control CSICOP are primarily bent upon the vilification of parapsychology and parapsychologists" (p. 191). Clearly, CSICOP has its share of detractors.

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After an historical overview, I discuss factors that characterize CSICOP and its local affiliates, and I examine their rhetorical strategies and review the major activities of the various groups. Coverage is limited to the rise of skepticism in the U.S., although CSICOP has established official sections of the Committee in foreign countries.

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CSICOP can be regarded as the first case of ongoing, organized de- bunking of the paranormal, (4) but there are some precursors. Prior to the organization of CSICOP, attacks on the paranormal have come largely from three groups: magicians, academic psychologists, and rationalists/atheists. (5) Magicians have been involved with controversies on the paranormal for over 400 years, and they have written numerous books on the topic (for an overview, see Hansen, in press). Academic psychologists critiqued early psychical research and parapsychology (for discussions, see Coon, in press; Mauskopf & McVaugh, 1980; Murchison, 1927; Pratt, Rhine, Smith, Stuart, & Greenwood, 1940; Prince, 1930). Rationalists and atheists have long been antagonistic to claims of miracles (see Keller & , 1968/1969). They actively combatted spiritualistic phenomena and psychical research, but little has been written about their involvement with these controversies. Even the section on the paranormal in "The Encyclopedia of Unbelief" (Hyman, 1985) ignores this connection.

One of the most prolific detractors of early psychic research was Joseph McCabe, a Catholic priest who became an atheist (Stein, 1985). McCabe authored a number of attacks (e.g., Chesterton et al., 1914; McCabe, 1914, 1920a, 1920b; "Verbatim Report," 1920). Rationalists Clodd (1917), Mann (1919), and Whyte (1920) wrote similar books. Many of these were produced for the Rationalist Press Association (RPA) under the imprint of Watts & Co. Mercier's (1917) "Spiritualism and Sir Oliver Lodge" was also published under that imprint. The rationalists' attacks diminished somewhat after the second decade of this century, but their influence continued. In the 1930s, Corliss Lamont (6) (1932, 1935) and rationalist J. B. S. Haldane wrote on miracles and psychic phenomena (Lunn & Haldane, 1935). (7) These two individuals took a more moderate position than the earlier writers and seemed to accept the reality of some psi events. The 1950s again produced sharper attacks. Joseph Rinn (1950), president of the Brooklyn Philosophical Association (a "free thought" group), wrote his scathing "Sixty Years of Psychical Research", which was published by the Truth Seeker Company, a major "free thought" publisher. In 1953, Wans & Co. produced Antony Flew's "A New Approach to Psychical Research." Two decades later, in 1975, the annual convention of the RPA was devoted to parapsychology ("Contents," 1975; "Science and the Paranormal," 1975), and their program listed C. E. M. Hansel, Antony Flew, Eric Dingwall, and Christopher Evans-all of whom soon became members of CSICOP. Today the tradition continues, and the American Rationalist frequently carries commentary critical of the paranormal. (8)

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In the early 1970s, there was a tremendous upsurge of interest in the occult in the U.S. (see Dutch, 1986; Melton, Clark, & Kelly, 1990). This occult explosion was not viewed favorably by many, and some academics perceived it to signal a rise of irrationality. One group that shared an interest in the matter was Resources for the Scientific Evaluation of the Paranormal (RSEP). The members included Martin Gardner, Ray Hyman, James Randi, and Marcello Truzzi, all of whom were magicians ("New Association," 1975). At that time, Truzzi, also a sociologist, was publishing a privately circulated newsletter called the "Zetetic". RSEP was barely organized and achieved little public notice but can be considered the immediate predecessor to CSICOP.

Shortly after the formation of RSEP, Paul Kurtz independently of that group, orchestrated a campaign against astrology. (9) Signatures from 186 scientists were collected for a manifesto titled "Objections to Astrology" (1975). It was published in the "Humanist", an obscure religious and philosophical magazine of the American Humanist Association (AHA) edited by Kurtz. According to an article by Kurtz (1977b), this manifesto "was sent to every newspaper in the United States and Canada" (p. 42). It was widely noticed and was discussed on the front page of the New York Times (Rensberger, 1975). The AHA held its 1976 annual convention on April 30 to May 2 with the theme "The Old and New Irrationalisms: Attacks on Science," and during that meeting CSICOP was formed ("American Humanist Association," 1976; Kurtz, 1976a, 1978a). It was initially sponsored by the "Humanist." RSEP disbanded, and Truzzi, Gardner, Randi, and Hyman joined CSICOP, with Truzzi becoming cochair and editor of the "Zetetic", it then being made the official organ of the Committee. Truzzi was probably the most moderate of the original members of CSICOP, and under his editorship (two issues) the magazine contained diverse viewpoints. He desired a scholarly publication devoted to debate and dialogue, whereas others wanted a more aggressive, popular approach. The two sides readily admitted their differences (Wade, 1977b), and while Truzzi was editing the "Zetetic". Kurtz was still running the "Humanist" and publishing vitriolic attacks on the paranormal by CSICOP members. In August 1977 Truzzi resigned as editor, and shortly thereafter he left the Committee and started a new publication called "Zetetic Scholar"; it was published irregularly for 11 issues, the last one appearing in 1987 (see Clark & Melton, 1979a, 1979b; Rensberger, 1978; Wade, 1977b). Kendrick Frazier was appointed editor of CSICOP's magazine; the name was changed to the "Skeptical Inquirer"; and it took on a more aggressive, debunking tone. Cartoons and illustrations were later added, some of which poked fun at persons discussed in the articles. Lee Nisbet, CSICOP's Executive Director, articulated the Committee's position for Nicholas Wade (1977a) of Science, saying: "It's [belief in the paranormal] a very dangerous phenomenon, dangerous to science, dangerous to the basic fabric of our society... We feel it is the duty of the scientific community to show that these beliefs are utterly screwball" (p. 646) .

One controversy, the Mars Effect debate, was perhaps especially instrumental in consolidating CSICOP's approach to the paranormal and the Committee Kurtz and several others were engaged in a scientific study of astrology. (10) Dennis Rawlins, an astronomer and member of the Executive Council of CSICOP, conducted the detailed calculations and data analysis for the project. He began noticing severe problems: The results were supporting the case for an astrological influence of Mars on sports ability, much to the consternation of the investigators. Rawlins tried to bring this to the attention of other Committee members. This lead to a bitter dispute, with Rawlins charging that serious mistakes had been made and that Kurtz had undertaken a Watergate-style cover-up. Rawlins (1981) was forced out of CSICOP, and he published an expose' in "Fate". There was no real answer to the charge of a cover-up, and much was published about it in "Zetetic Scholar." The upshot was that several of the more moderate people resigned from the Committee. Rawlins's article appeared in the October 1981 issue of "Fate", and that same month CSICOP instituted a policy of not conducting research itself ("Policy on Sponsoring," 1982).

After the moderate members left, little dissent or criticism of the Committee has been seen in the pages of "SI". The magazine nearly always presents only one side of a controversy in its articles. Although "SI" sometimes publishes letters of complaint, full papers from CSICOP's critics almost never appear. This is in remarkable contrast to refereed parapsychology journals and even some of the pro-paranormal magazines. For instance, the popularly written magazine "Fate" has carried full articles by CSICOP members Susan Blackmore, L. Sprague de Camp, Kendrick Frazier, Martin Gardner, Philip Klass, Larry Kusche, Lawrence Jerome, David Marks, Joe Nickell, James Oberg, Dennis Rawlins, Robert Sheaffer, Gordon Stein, and Marcello Truzzi. In keeping with CSICOP's one-sided approach, "SI" has given scant attention to papers in well-known, orthodox scientific journals that present evidence for psi (e.g., Child, 1985; Jahn, 1982; Radin & Nelson, 1989; Rao & Palmer, 1987; Winkelman, 1982).

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Another major development in the skeptics' movement occurred in the early 1980s with the formation of local groups. The first was founded in Austin, Texas in the fall of 1981 by several persons affiliated with the University of Texas (McFadden, 1981). The first approved local chapter was the Bay Area Skeptics, which was organized in June 1982 (Frazier, 1982). Groups in other parts of the country soon followed, and in the last nine years the growth has been dramatic (see Figure 2). Some of these organizations have hundreds of members.


There are four major features that characterize CSICOP, affect its choice of goals, and determine its spheres of influence. Perhaps the single most important factor is the high educational level of the membership; many hold prominent positions within academia. Another aspect is that a dis-proportionate number of members are magicians, and many of them were involved with parapsychological controversies long before the establishment of the Committee. A third distinguishing feature is that the vast majority in CSICOP are male, and this has affected the tone and demeanor of the group. A final characteristic is the influence of religious convictions; a substantial portion of the members share similar views and are active in promoting them.


The most salient feature of the Committee is the academic status of many of its members. Their scholarly prestige gives the organization its visibility, power, and legitimacy in the eyes of important segments of society. CSICOP has actively recruited people such as Murray Gell-Mann (Nobel laureate in physics), F.H.C. Crick (Nobel prize for physiology and medicine), Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and the late B.F. Skinner. A large percentage of the membership is involved in scholarly pursuits. The inside front cover of the Summer 1990 issue of "SI" shows that 28 of the 56 Fellows list college or university affiliations; the remainder are mostly writers and scientists. Of the 56 Scientific and Technical Consultants, 32 give college or university affiliations.

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Leaders of the local groups frequently come from the academic com- munity. The lists of affiliates in back issues of "SI" show that a number of the chairpersons have been based in university departments (often in psychology). These groups have sought support (and thus prestige) from academics. According to their letterhead, the Southern California Skeptics (SCS) had 13 of 18 board members and technical advisors who held Ph.D. degrees. In fact, the SCS was granted affiliation with the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science ("Corrections to Last Laser" 1986; SCS Becomes Affiliated," 1986). Four of five members of the core committee of the Sacramento Skeptics Society held doctoral degrees (Sandbeck, 1987). The May 1985 issue of the "Northwest Skeptic" listed 27 consultants for that group, 18 of whom gave academic affiliations. Thirteen of 19 advisors of the Bay Area Skeptics held doctoral degrees ("Advisors," 1986), as did 5 of 6 Advisors and Supporters of Hawaii Skeptics, according to their press release of June 11, 1985.

The highly educated provide a large source of CSICOP's constituency. In the last 30 years, higher education has been a major growth industry; the number of Ph.D.'s awarded in 1975 was more than three times that of 1960 ("A Century of Doctorates," 1978). In the process of pursuing advanced degrees, graduate students become familiar with the world views of those prominent in academia. When such prestigious people lend their names to an antiparanormal crusade, a student might automatically presume that those persons are scientific authorities on the topic. The result is a sizeable number who look to the Committee for expert opinion on the paranormal. In fact, CSICOP conducted a survey of its readership and found that 83% have some type of college degree, 54% have some type of advanced degree, and 27% hold a doctoral degree (personal communication from Barry Karr, August 19, 1991). These are impressive figures, and the relatively recent rapid growth of academe may help explain why organized debunking has been able to flourish now rather than in earlier times.

The prominence of the membership gives the Committee a number of benefits. It allows CSICOP's voice to be heard in academic debates on the paranormal. The National Research Council report on parapsychology is an example (for a discussion, see Palmer, Honorton, & Utts, 1989). Non-member academics are likely to consider CSICOP's views when refereeing papers, evaluating grant proposals, and counseling students. It seems virtually certain that CSICOP will have a long-term impact on all in the academic world who become involved with parapsychology. CSICOP's views are likely to be influential when it comes to deciding how, and to what extent, the paranormal will be scientifically investigated within academia.


The proportion of magicians in CSICOP is much higher than in the general population, and the magic fraternity has provided another constituency for the Committee. Kendrick Frazier (1984) noted that the first international CSICOP conference was attended by scores of amateur and professional magicians. The publishing house Prometheus Books, which produces skeptical works, is one of the few nonmagic vendors to advertise in conjuring magazines.

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As can be seen in Table 1, 13 official members of CSICOP are or have been magicians. A number of these people have achieved some eminence within the conjuring fraternity. Martin Gardner began contributing to magic magazines more than 50 years ago (Matrix, 1979) and is an authority on impromptu close-up magic (Waters, 1988). Randi has been professionally involved with magic since he was 18 and seems to be the person most publicly identified with CSICOP. Ray Hyman was featured on the cover of the October 1986 issue of "Linking Ring", the largest circulation magic magazine in the world. All three of these serve on the Executive Council of the Committee. Some of those who are no longer members of CSICOP are also well known within magic societies. Truzzi served as vice-president of Psychic Entertainers Association. Persi Diaconis is considered one of the top six card manipulators today (Waters, 1988). The late Milbourne Christopher was one of the most eminent historians of magic, and the late Eric Dingwall was the oldest living member of the Magic Circle. All of the above mentioned conjurors were involved with psychic topics long before the beginning of CSICOP, and the established social contacts within magic circles were very important in the formation of the Committee.

Social networks within conjuring also facilitated the founding of the local groups, and these organizations too have a substantial number of magicians. Robert Steiner, former chair of the Bay Area Skeptics (BAS), has been president of the Society of American Magicians (SAM) as well as chair of the SAM occult investigations committee. Robertson (1984) noted that magic tricks were displayed by a number of people at the founding party of BAS. David Alexander was a board member of Southern California Skeptics (SCS) as well as a professional magician; he is now editor of the "Humanist". Richard Busch, chair of the Paranormal Investigating Committee of Pittsburgh, is a magician, as is Jamy lan Swiss, a cofounder of the National Capital Area Skeptics. All five members of the core committee of Sacramento Skeptics Society have performed magic (Sandbeck, 1987; "Magic, Mysteries, and Mirth," 1987).

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The high visibility of conjurors in CSICOP has given many people the idea that most magicians hold skeptical views regarding psychic phenomena. Surprisingly, this impression is not correct. Birdsell (1989) polled a group of magicians in California and found that 82% had a belief in ESP, and Truzzi (1983) cited a German poll of conjurors that revealed that 72.3% believed psi was probably real. Many prominent magicians have, in fact, endorsed psychic phenomena (Hansen, 1990a, 1990b).

The Predominance of Men and Its Effects

CSICOP is heavily dominated by men, and until 1991 there were no women at all on the Executive Council. A reporter for New Scientist described CSICOP as "white," "male," and "slightly geriatric" (Ander- son, 1987, p. 51). The inside covers of recent issues of "SI" display the gender imbalance; the results are summarized in Table 2. The predominance of men characterizes the local affiliates as well. Of the 40 listed local leaders, only two are women.

Certainly academia is predominantly male, and so it is not surprising that a majority of CSICOP's members are men. However, the percentage does seem disproportionate.

Not all the local groups are totally dominated by men, and a CSICOP manual prepared for local groups encouraged the involvement of women. The East Bay Skeptics in California reported that 27% of its members were women ("Members Elect First Board," 1988), and in a 1990 election of the National Capital Area Skeptics, 3 of 11 listed candidates were women. Despite these efforts, the debunking movement is overwhelmingly run by men.

The perceived demeanor. Some have perceived the gender imbalance as influencing the demeanor of CSICOP, the "Skeptical Inquirer", and the local affiliates. A few have even suggested that some debunkers project an insecure and macho attitude. Commenting on the 1985 CSICOP convention in California, Auerbach (1985) wrote:

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I felt an air of insecurity in the audience, and some of the presenters. It was very strange to be in an audience that laughed at the mere mention of the names of a few of the better-known parapsychologists, listening to presenters who seemed to enjoy that reaction, and even encourage it. (p. 10)

Michael Swords (1986) painted a similar picture of the 1986 conference.

Such perceptions are not limited to outsiders. This has been an issue within CSICOP as well. In the March 1985 newsletter of the Bay Area Skeptics, Mary Coulman (1985) wrote a piece titled "Where Are the Women?" She reported that sometimes she was the only woman who attended meetings of the Bay Area Skeptics and that often there were only 2 or 3 women present with 60 to 70 men. Coulman wrote another column in the June issue asking the same question, noting that no women had yet replied. Finally, months later, Elissa Pratt-Lowe (1985) responded:

I think another aspect of organized skepticism that may deter women is the aggressive, "macho" attitudes held by some of the (male) participants. It seems to me that some "skeptics" are more interested in ridicule than in exploring and challenging pseudoscientific beliefs. [This was followed by "Very true. I think. -- MC"]. (p. 7)

The Bay Area Skeptics are not the only ones to confront the problem. In response to an article by physicist George Lawrence in Rocky Mountain Skeptic John Wilder (1988) wrote: "For all of the author's [Lawrence's] scientific, academic and intellectual credentials, he displays a level of disrespect for others that, in my opinion, is completely inappropriate...The author succeeded only in subjecting a group of sincere...people to outright ridicule" (p. 8).

One of the most extreme cases was that of Drew Endacott. He undertook to form a local affiliate in the Philadelphia area and sent out letters saying, "I am forming such an organization with CSICOP's backing, and I want people who are willing to get dirty...What we will do is employ a very thorough, proven technique for getting the point across to people who have no demonstrated facility to reason" (copy of letter in possession of author). Once Kurtz was alerted to this, he disavowed affiliation with Endacott and forbade him to use CSICOP's name. Endacott was not a lone crackpot however but a charter member of the Austin Society to Oppose Pseudo-science (ASTOP), and before trying to start his own chapter in Philadelphia, he consulted with ASTOP as well as with Richard Busch, chair of the Paranormal Investigating Committee of Pittsburgh ("Elsewhere In Philly," 1985). Certainly the vast majority of members of local affiliates are not this radical. However, these groups do attract persons with extreme views, and a number are active within the local societies.

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A few individuals in the national organization have expressed concern about the image projected by the local affiliates. Ray Hyman has been quoted as speaking of a "frightening" "fundamentalism" and "witch- hunting" when discussing the rise of the popular debunking movement (Clark, 1987). Hyman has also been quoted as saying: "As a whole, parapsychologists are nice, honest people, while the critics are cynical, nasty people" (McBeath & Thalbourne 1985, p. 3). Hyman (1987) wrote an article advising the local groups how to be effective critics; this was published in "Skeptical Briefs" and reprinted in a number of newsletters. He suggested using "the principle of charity," saying "_I know that many of my fellow critics will find this principle to be unpalatable_" (p. 5, italics added).

The problems caused by cynicism and hostility have been recognized by the organization, and steps are being taken to diminish them. The severity of the problem cannot be attributed entirely to male dominance; after all, a number of other predominantly male organizations do not have such a reputation. It is likely that there are a number of other factors that contribute to the perceived demeanor.

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Religious and Philosophical Factors

Several organized and informal religious channels (primarily atheistic) (11) link many CSICOP Fellows, consultants, and members of local groups. Although CSICOP members cannot be said to hold a unified religious view, considerable religious influence is visible. This is apparent in the writings of leading spokespersons such as James Alcock, Martin Gardner, and Paul Kurtz-all members of the Executive Council. See Table 3 for a list of members who have publicly identified themselves as holding atheistic or at least nontheistic views.

Paul Kurtz, Chairman of CSICOP and a philosopher at the State Uni- versity of New York at Buffalo, (12) is active in promulgating atheism. He is president of Promethesus Books (Berkley, 1987), which publishes such titles as "The Atheist Debater's Handbook and Atheism: The Case Against God." Kurtz was formerly editor of the Humanist, is now editor of the magazine "Free Inquiry" (FI), and has been positioning himself as a leading spokesperson for secular humanism (Barlett, 1987). Kurtz's views on the paranormal are firmly linked to his views on religion. (13) The title of his book, "The Transcendental Temptation: A Critique of Religion and the Paranormal" (Kurtz, 1986), speaks for itself (for a review, see Stokes, 1987).

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James Alcock has made several attempts to associate parapsychology with religion in order to discredit it as a science. One of his concerted attempts was published in "Free Inquiry" and was entitled "Parapsychology: The `Spiritual' Science" (Alcock, 1985). Alcock's feelings toward religion were candidly revealed in his 1981 book, "Parapsychology: Science or Magic?", where he asserted:

In the name of religion human beings have committed genocide, toppled thrones, built gargantuan shrines, practiced ritual murder, forced others to conform to their way of life, eschewed the pleasures of the flesh, flagellated themselves, or given away all their possessions and become martyrs. (p. 7)

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Positive attributes of religion were not acknowledged, and these feelings may help explain Alcock's frequent criticisms of psi research. For on the same page he wrote: "An examination of the origins and functions of religion ...is a useful starting-point for the study of modern parapsychology ."

A former member of the Executive Council wrote on religion in "SI" as follows:

One is continually encountering priests who express dismay and perplexity at their flock's attraction for the other, competing superstitions...Give a fellow the tools for destroying his common sense, and occasionally he'll finish the job.... Religion is the optimist's paranoia. (Rawlins, 1977, p. 65)

Martin Gardner also acknowledged the influence of his religious beliefs, and he revealed that he once was a Protestant fundamentalist (Barcellos, 1979; Morris, 1982). Apparently his opposition to parapsychology is based in part on religious factors, for he has written:

It is possible that paranormal forces not yet established may allow prayers to influence the material world, and I certainly am not saying this possibility should be ruled out....As for empirical tests of the power of God to answer prayer, I am among those theists who, in the spirit of Jesus' remark that only the faithless look for signs, consider such tests both futile and blasphemous....let us not tempt God. (Gardner, 1983b, p. 239)

Such attitudes help explain why Gardner has derided the religious views of professional researchers in parapsychology in order to besmirch their reputations as scientists (e.g., Gardner, 1981, pp. 320-321). Recently, Gardner (1991) argued that electronics writer Forrest Mims was rightfully denied a position as a columnist for "Scientific American" because Mims was an evangelical Christian creationist, even though "Scientific American" admitted that Mims was otherwise well qualified and that his writings would have had nothing to do with evolution (see "Science's Litmus Test," 1991). (14) Gardner asserted that Mims' personal beliefs would have embarrassed the magazine, and that alone was sufficient reason to reject Mims. One can only conclude that issues of religious belief are important in the life of Martin Gardner.

Organizational links. Kurtz's magazine "Free Inquiry" provides connec- tions between humanists and skeptics' groups. But Kurtz is not the only one in CSICOP who is involved with "Free Inquiry"; there is actually considerable overlap. Four of the five associate editors of "Free Inquiry" are listed in "Skeptical Inquirer" as having some affiliation with CSICOP. The editor, senior editors, and at least four contributing editors of "Free Inquiry" are associated with the Committee. (This overlap can be seen by comparing the Summer 1989 issues of "FI" and "SI".) The magazines have shared office space since 1980. In October of 1990 this became more well known because CSICOP sent out a flyer announcing a new building (5,700 square feet) to house CSICOP, "SI", "FI", and the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH) (Kurtz is also Chair of CODESH). According to the Spring 1991 issue of SI, $333,000 of the needed $420,000 had been raised. Also announced was a campaign to raise another $1,500,000 for a 24,000-square-foot building.

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A subscription to "Free Inquiry" also brings the "Secular Humanist Bulletin", a newsletter published by the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism. Issues have been devoted largely to short articles and notes on Christian Fundamentalism and Roman Catholicism. It is probably no accident that both Fundamentalists and Catholics have a belief in miracles (which can be interpreted as paranormal phenomena), and reports of miracles come in for derisive comment. "Free Inquiry" is active in promoting secular humanist centers, and these have been described specifically as resembling local affiliates of CSICOP (Flynn, 1986/1987). The Summer 1989 issue of "FI" listed 19 such groups in the U.S. Tim Madigan, cofounder of Catholics Anonymous and Executive Editor of "FI", has organized a secular humanist group as well as a skeptics' group.

The Rationalist Press Association in England has waged a long battle against religious beliefs. Its Honorary Associates have included CSICOP members Francis Crick, Eric Dingwall, Paul Edwards, Antony Flew, Paul Kurtz, Ernest Nagel, and B.F. Skinner. Flew and Kurtz have served as vice-presidents of the RPA. The RPA shares some of the characteristics of CSICOP. A survey of the readership of its magazine New Humanist found that 36% are over age 70, and 80% are over 50. Only 11% are women ("New Humanist Readership," 1990).

Another linkage of CSICOP members is the Academy of Humanism. This was formed in 1983 with maximum enrollment limited to 60, and all members can be considered eminent. The members are described as "nontheistic" (Academy of Humanism," 1983). Kurtz was largely responsible for the founding of the Academy, and he serves in its secretariat. The announcement of the Academy's formation decries paranormal beliefs. Indeed, of the 57 names listed as members of the Academy (inside back cover of the Spring 1989 issue of "FI"), 18 are or have been affiliated with CSICOP.

In 1985, the Academy announced the formation of the Committee for Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER). This committee purports to be "the first effective body of scientific scholars to evaluate these claims in the light of scientific inquiry" ("Scientists Form New Committee," 1985). The style and format of articles produced by members of this committee, and articles in "FI" generally, are similar to those in "American Atheist", the publication of Madalyn O'Hair (e.g., "Yahweh: A Mortally Retarded God" [Harwood, 1986]; "Is Religiosity Pathological?" [Ellis, 1988]). The articles are in striking contrast to the scholarly papers in the "Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion" and the "Review of Religious Research"; both have been in existence for more than 30 years. Some of the classified advertisements give a flavor of "FI" (e.g., "Devastating Bible Critique," "Jesus Never Existed," "Jehovah's Witnesses Hilariously Exposed"). Personal ads have been accepted, as well as those for an apparently untested AIDS remedy and for cryogenic immortality (see "FI", Winter 1986/87, p. 63). Seven of 20 CSER members are affiliated with CSICOP, and Randi is the principal investigator of one of the subcommittees (see back cover of Winter 1986/87 issue of "FI").

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Local groups. As in the parent organization, members of local affiliates have mixed views on religion. However, it is clear that religious assumptions and previously held but now-rejected beliefs are strong influences. As with CSICOP, religious networks link members of the local groups.

The local organizations not infrequently promote secular humanism and mention it in their literature. The Sacramento Skeptics even rescheduled their meetings to avoid a conflict with the Sacramento Humanists ("Special Note," 1988). The newsletter of the National Capital Area Skeptics reported on the Tenth Humanist World Congress in Buffalo in 1988. That congress held a special lunch for "SI" subscribers, and a tour was offered of CSICOP's headquarters (Inglis, 1988a).

Both Al Seckel, executive director of the Southern California Skeptics, and Robert Steiner, former chair of the Bay Area Skeptics, have been involved with a subcommittee of CSER. Steiner describes himself as a "militant atheist" (Robertson, 1984) and even published an article denouncing Santa Claus in "American Atheist" (Steiner, 1982). Seckel has contributed to publications of Atheists United and to the "American Atheist." Rick Rickards (1986) of the Cleveland skeptics' group described religion as being "only a variation on the same theme [as pseudoscience]" (p. [3]).

A number of members apparently once held strong religious or para- normal beliefs but later became disillusioned. Bela Scheiber (1986), president of an affiliate in Colorado, described his views on flying saucers: "In fact you could say I was a believer" and went on to refer to his "youthful longing for something to believe in" (p. 2). Robert Sheaffer, a former chairperson of the Bay Area Skeptics, admitted to previously believing in flying saucers (Robertson, 1984). John Hill (1986), editor of "Rocky Mountain Skeptic", wrote of his attendance at a scientific creationism seminar: "It was fun in a way, but too much like being thrust back into my adolescence" (p. 4). Richard Brenneman, former editor of the newsletter of the Sacramento group, admitted to having been an astrologer (Sandbeck, 1987).

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Psychological and social consequences. Skeptics sometimes speak de- risively of an emotional "need to believe." If this need is a typical part of the human condition, skeptics are unlikely to escape its influence, even if they deny it. In fact, in a work published by Prometheus Books, skeptic John Schumaker (1990) explores the detrimental psychological consequences of being skeptical of religion and the paranormal. He frankly acknowledges that skeptics can have difficulty adjusting to society and are susceptible to certain mental disorders.

There are striking parallels in the advertisements for membership for both skeptics' groups and atheistic-secular humanist organizations. Both appeal to the feeling of isolation in an "irrational" culture. The first issue of the National Capital Area Skeptics' newsletter asked: "Do you sometimes feel that, as a skeptic, you are all but isolated in a sea of credulity? ...we are eager to have you join us" (p. 3).

The feelings of loneliness and isolation are quite real, and there seem to be reasons for them. Individuals in both groups sometimes display disdain for others. This is exemplified in the widely publicized comment made at a humanist convention by Ted Turner, who called Christianity "a religion for losers" ("Turner Sorry," 1990). I have encountered these attitudes among atheists and secular humanists. Some describe religious believers as "weak" or "unwilling to face reality ." Similar opinions are expressed by debunkers. Given such beliefs, it is no surprise that some skeptics feel alone and isolated. Certainly not all of them hold such attitudes, and some have even expressed dismay at the behavior of fellow debunkers.

Although religious issues seem to be quite salient in the lives of many skeptics, not all are so involved. Yet as shown in Table 3, 29 official members of CSICOP have _publicly_ identified themselves as holding nontheistic or atheistic beliefs. This is a remarkable number, and it has clearly influenced the organization. Much of the energy driving the controversy over the paranormal may derive from deeply held religious beliefs, and any attempt to understand the psychological factors underlying the psi controversy should consider religious issues.


The structure of CSICOP influences its goals and activities. Here I briefly outline the formal organization of the Committee and its changing relationship with the local groups. It is crucial to understand the backgrounds of a few key personalities because they largely determine priorities. As will be described, the power in CSICOP is concentrated in a very small number of individuals, the vast majority have no vote, and few policy makers are scientists.

Official Structure of CSICOP

The "By Laws of CSICOP, Inc." (undated) state that "the Executive Council of the Committee shall have voting power with respect to formulating the policies of the Committee" (p. 2). (15) The even smaller Board of Directors (16) is vested with the financial and administrative power, with the Chair (Kurtz) given primary authority. The "Fellows" of the Committee and the "Scientific and Technical Consultants" (who are the only other official members of CSICOP) are without vote. Thus, all of the most eminent members play virtually no role in decisions; their names simply lend status to the organization. The precise number of members of the Committee is unclear because the membership rosters in "SI" are preceded with the words "partial list," but Paul Kurtz told me that there were few if any additional members (personal communication from Paul Kurtz, August 14, 1991). (17)

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Although many Fellows and Consultants are scientists, few of the policy makers are. In fact, only one member of the Board of Directors is a scientist (Alcock); the others are philosophers and editors. Thus, nonscientific leadership controls CSICOP, and as I explain, this is reflected in the activities of the organization.

CSICOP employs approximately six full-time and six part-time people (personal communication from Barry Karr, August 14, 1991). These per- sonnel produce and edit the newsletter and magazine, respond to inquiries, raise funds, and organize conferences. Some of the employees are also associated with the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism.

Key Personalities

The dynamism and vitality of the group can be attributed to a small number of key individuals committed to similar goals. The three most influential have been Paul Kurtz, James Randi, and Martin Gardner. Al- though I have mentioned them before, some additional background infor- mation may help explain their roles.

Paul Kurtz. Paul Kurtz is chairman and cofounder of the Committee and widely regarded as its driving force (Gordon, 1987, p. 213). It was he who arranged financial support to begin the organization. Although Kurtz taught philosophy, he might be described more accurately as a "business-person-missionary ." Kurtz is president of Prometheus Books, which he founded in 1970 (Berkley, 1978). This publishing house is the primary purveyor of antiparanormal books in this country, and its financial success has been aided by the growth of the debunking movement. The press has a reported average annual growth of 25% (Berkley, 1987). Kurtz is also a copresident of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (a coalition of humanist and atheist organizations). Although Kurtz has shown exceptional dynamism and success as a businessperson and as a missionary for secular humanism, his position as a philosopher seems a bit less impressive. His "Exuberance: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life" (1977/1985b) is something of a "positive thinking" book for humanists, and a recent review compared the level of his writing with that of Shirley MacLaine (Stillings, 1989).

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James Randi. Randi has been professionally involved with magic since he was 18, and he has received moderate acclaim within that fraternity. He was featured on the cover of "Hocus Pocus" (April/June, 1980) and "Tannen's Magic Manuscript" (January/February, 1986). Randi has long been involved with the paranormal; in fact, his entry in Current Biography (Moritz, 1988) tells how he publicly confronted phoney spiritualists when he was a teenager. He has since enjoyed a colorful career; at one time, Randi published a phoney astrology column (Moritz, 1988); had a radio show of his own (Moseley 1965a); was an escape artist (Nicolson, 1974); toured with rock star Alice Cooper, playing the role of executioner on stage (Greene, 1986); and took part in "archaeological exploits" in South America with UFO buff James Moseley (1965b) who has admitted to grave-robbing (Pattison, 1991). Randi is now the individual probably most widely identified with the skeptics' movement. His magic experience helped generate considerable publicity; he has appeared on Johnny Carson's "Tonight" show at least 32 times (Jaroff, 1988). Randi's association with CSICOP resulted in his receiving several major honors. The MacArthur Foundation gave him a "genius" award, which carried a tax-free grant of $272,000 (Holden, 1986). In 1989 the American Physical Society presented him with its Forum Award for "Promoting Public Understanding of the Relation of Physics to Society" ("We Hear That," 1989).

Like many others in CSICOP, Randi has described himself as an atheist. He associates with like-minded groups and has made appearances at con- ventions of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. In 1990, he received a Humanist Distinguished Service Award, and the American Humanist Association sells both audio and video tapes titled "Honoring the Amazing Randi ."

Martin Gardner. Martin Gardner has been aptly described as the "god- father of the movement" (Clark, 1990, p. 420); his influence is pervasive. As mentioned previously, he is highly regarded in conjuring circles and has contributed important works to magic (Booth, 1988). In 1952 he published "In the Name of Science", which has turned out to be a landmark skeptical work. The volume established Gardner as an early prominent debunker. The book took a popular rather than scholarly approach, and it contained no footnotes or list of references. It displayed a snide and sarcastic demeanor, setting the tone for many future debunkers. Gardner's book was later revised and is still in print under the title "Fads and Fallacies in the "Name of Science" (Gardner, 1957). The temper of his writing attracted the attention of a "Newsweek" writer who noted: "Gentle as he is, he is driven almost beyond satire...he wields Ockham's razor like a switch-blade" (Adler with Carey, 1981, p.101). Despite his style, Gardner is no intellectual lightweight; for example, his "The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener" (1983b) is much more sophisticated than a number of Kurtz's recent books.

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Gardner is primarily a writer and shuns public appearances; he has never made a presentation at a CSICOP convention. His entry in Contemporary Authors (Locher, 1978) lists 41 authored and edited works; many more have been published since. His skeptical influence has been felt in the publishing world beyond his own writings. Hansel (1966, p. v) specifically thanked Gardner for helping to assure publication of his "ESP: A Scientific Evaluation." Gardner also makes a point of talking with editors and publishers and informing them as to what can be considered as "acceptable" science (e.g., Gardner, 1981, p. 346).

Gardner probably received his greatest fame through his mathematical games column in "Scientific American." This series ran from 1957 to 1982. I grew up reading his column, and I suspect that a substantial portion of today's physical scientists and engineers did too. Near the time of his retirement a number of magazines carried articles on his career (e.g., Adler with Carey, 1981 ; Moms, 1982; Rucker, 1981), and Volume 22 of the "Journal of Recreational Mathematics" was dedicated to him (Madachy, 1990). These tributes attest to his wide influence.

All three of these key individuals have a financial stake in the debunking movement. Prometheus Books publishes numerous skeptical titles, and Kurtz is president-a fact rarely acknowledged in the pages of "SI" . Randi obtains speaking and performing engagements through local skeptics' groups. Gardner has published a number of books via Kurtz's publishing house and is one of its most prolific authors. Writers in "SI" sometimes complain about the financial self-interest of those promoting the paranormal; however, such comments are seldom directed at those within their own ranks.

Local Groups

The relationship of CSICOP and the local groups has varied over the years, but the first officially "approved local chapter" was the Bay Area Skeptics, which began in 1982 (Frazier, 1982). Other chapters soon followed, and their growth has been impressive. The Committee has taken an active role in fostering these societies; CSICOP has loaned money for such purposes, and in one undertaking, the Executive Director was sent on a two-month world tour to help establish debunking organizations (Anderson, 1987). CSICOP published the newsletter "Skeptical Briefs" (SB) in order to facilitate communication with the groups as well as a handbook describing how to organize and manage them. At CSICOP conferences, there have been sessions devoted to representatives from the local affiliates, and at one time CSICOP employed a "Group Coordinator."

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The local affiliates have posed some difficulties for the Committee. A few members have been extremely aggressive, and some of their attacks have provoked lawsuits. With the rising legal problems, CSICOP became concerned about the groups, and in their listing in the Spring 1987 "SI", they began to describe them as "independent and autonomous." Executive Director Mark Plummer (1989) claimed that CSICOP had designated the groups as "autonomous" and "not officially or unofficially affiliated with CSICOP" in 1982. However, publications of the Committee were referring to the groups as "affiliates" at least as late as July 1986 (in "Skeptical Briefs"). With the lawsuits, the concerns grew, and in May 1987, CSICOP published an article in "Skeptical Briefs" titled "Dealing with a Libel Lawsuit." It suggested that the organizations consider purchasing libel insurance and that if they were sued to contact the Committee. Incidents involving Al Seckel have also proved embarrassing for CSICOP. Seckel was an official and active member (18) of the Committee and a founder of the Southern California Skeptics. After years of high profile activity, it was discovered that he did not hold the academic credentials he claimed (Moseley, 1991a). Ironically, the Committee had previously prided itself on exposing hoaxers and con artists, but CSICOP has made no public comment on the Seckel affair.

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