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Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP)

Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP)

Founded April 30, 1976, at an annual meeting of the American Humanist Association devoted to "The New Irrationalism: Antiscience and Pseudoscience" and sponsored by some twenty-five scientists, authors, philosophers, and scholars. The moving spirit in this organization was Paul Kurtz, professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and the formation of CSICOP was an outgrowth of a 1975 manifesto, signed by 186 prominent scientists, denouncing astrology. The following objectives were stated by the committee:

"To establish a network of people interested in examining claims of the paranormal; to prepare bibliographies of published materials that carefully examine such claims; to encourage and commission research by objective and impartial inquirers in areas where it is needed; to convene conferences and meetings; to publish articles, monographs, and books that examine claims of the paranormal; to not reject on a priori grounds, antecedent to inquiry, any or all such claims, but rather to examine them openly, completely, objectively, and carefully."

An initial step toward implementing these aims was the sponsorship of a journal, the Zetetic, originally founded by Marcello Truzzi, a sociologist at Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti. The name of the journal derived from an ancient Greek school of skeptical inquiry, although, interestingly enough, in nineteenth-century England it became synonymous with belief in a flat earth, and it is still used in that connection by the Flat Earth Research Society International.

Formation of CSICOP was an outcome of genuine concern of some intellectuals and scientists, most with a prior commitment to humanistic and rationalistic worldviews, about what they viewed as the uncritical public acceptance of so-called paranormal phenomena, often without any valid evidence for their genuineness. In the wake of the publicity and seeming sanctioning of paranormal phenomena by parapsychologists and other scientists, as well as the intellectual pluralism in the post-World War II West, they viewed with alarm widespread belief in highly speculative pseudoscience. They saw this belief reflected in best-selling books, television and radio programs, and even university courses that elevated such controversial subjects as ancient astronauts, astrology, UFOs, and so on to the status of factual science. Seeing interest in the paranormal as a reaction against science and reason, some members of the committee viewed such beliefs as threatening to civilization.

CSICOP initially included a number of outstanding individuals, such as George Abell (professor of astronomy, University of California at Los Angeles), Isaac Asimov (chemist, author of science-fiction stories), Richard Berendzen (dean, College of Arts Sciences at American University), Brand Blandshard (professor of philosophy, Yale University), Bart Bok (emeritus professor of astronomy, University of Arizona), Daniel Cohen (au-thor, former editor of Science Digest ), L. Sprague de Camp (engineer, author of science-fiction stories), Eric J. Dingwall (anthropologist, parapsychologist), Charles Fair (author), Antony Flew (professor of philosophy, Reading University, England), Martin Gardner (author, member of editorial staff of Scientific American ), Sidney Hook (professor of philosophy, State University of New York at Buffalo), Lawrence Jerome (science writer), Philip J. Klass (engineer, science writer), Marvin Kohl (professor of philosophy, State University College at Fredonia, New York), Ernest Nagel (professor emeritus of philosophy, Columbia University), Lee Nisbet (special projects editor of The Humanist ), James Prescott (neuro psychologist), W. V. Quine (professor of philosophy, Harvard University), James Randi (magician, escapologist, author), B. F. Skinner (professor of psychology, Harvard University), Martin Zelen (professor of statistical science, State University of New York at Buffalo), and Martin Zimmerman (philosopher, State University of New York at Buffalo).

The inclusion of such well-known opponents of claims for psychic phenomena as Martin Gardner and James Randias well as of humanists who actively discouraged belief in religion as unscientificled to accusations that CSICOP was strongly slanted to debunking the paranormal rather than impartial investigation. Critics charged that chairman Kurtz was "exploiting the prestige lent by the names of the scientists who joined the Committee to further the aims of his American Humanist Societywhich, ironically, is registered as a religion ('Atheist') for tax purposes."

However, Kurtz insisted that CSICOP was not a "witch hunt" nor "biased or locked in by established scientific views," and claimed that it was "willing to consider and investigate areas however strange or anomalous they seem to the existing state of knowledge." He also stressed the social consequences of increasing acceptance of reports of paranormal phenomena, which might contain "inherent dangers" to society. "There is always the danger that once irrationality grows, it will spill over into other areas of society," Kurtz said.

The initial attack on astrology had garnered much news attention (and inadvertently brought a significant amount of free publicity and new business to astrologers). CSICOP proceeded to create issues that would keep its concern before the media. For example, during November 1977 the committee filed a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) charging NBC Television with knowingly presenting questionable material that could result in physical harm to the public in a 50-minute program titled "Exploring the Un-known," featuring psychic surgery, communication with the dead, and other claimed paranormal events. CSICOP's complaint alleged that the favorable presentation of such topics as psychic surgery and psychic healing could lead viewers to seek such methods of treatment to the exclusion of needed medical care. The FCC ruled that the complaint was unfounded.

Although it was true that individual members of the committee were receptive to scientific investigation of claims of the paranormal, the stance of Kurtz and others in control was amply demonstrated by their first attempt at new research. Soon after the formation of the committee, they began a project to check the claims of French researchers Michel and Françoise Gauquelin The Gauquelins said they had found significant correlation between the position of planets at the time of birth of a number of individuals who had been outstanding examples of success in their profession. Several members of the committee studied a sample of American athletes to see if, as the Gauquelin's had found with their sample, the planet Mars had a similarly prominent position when they were born. Kurtz's group declared that their research disproved the Gauquelins' claims, and they published their report in the commit-tee's journal, now renamed The Skeptical Inquirer.

However, trouble was brewing within CSICOP. In 1979 Dennis Rawlins was excluded from the group's council, upon which he had served. Two years later, in a lengthy article published in Fate magazine (October 1981), Rawlins revealed that the research had in fact substantiated the Gauquelins' research, but that findings had been altered so that negative results could be reported. Rawlins accused the committee of willingness to cover up evidence of any reality of the paranormal in an effort to totally destroy public belief in it. Rawlins's revelations about the activity of some of the committee's leading members put a mark on the committee that has hampered its efforts ever since.

The "Starbaby incident," as the astrology scandal was termed, however, merely highlighted issues that had divided members of CSICOP from the beginning. Marcello Truzzi, original founder of the journal The Zetetic (formerly titled Explorations ), had already resigned from the committee in 1978, relinquishing editorship of the journal, which thereafter changed its name to The Skeptical Inquirer. His letter of resignation told of differences between his original goals and those of the committee and the American Humanist Association, leaving him no alternative but to resign. For many years thereafter Truzzi edited the Zetetic Scholar, an independent scientific review of claims of anomalies and the paranormal.

Truzzi's resignation underlined a basic contradiction in the purpose of CSICOP: How could it combine an attitude of impartial inquiry with a stance of scientific authority when there was an initial assumption that all claims of the paranormal were erroneous or fraudulent? One searches the pages of The Skeptical Inquirer in vain for an instance of any paranormal phenomenon or parapsychological finding being validated or even tentatively accepted, and opposing voices or protests are quoted only in order to be relentlessly discredited without extended discussion. The tone of many articles is sarcastic and hostile, rather than impartial, and the frequent appeals to "scientific evidence" as a remedy for "false beliefs and delusions" often sound authoritarian.

Because of the skepticism of its members, however, CSICOP has made many contributions, especially through its journal. Its scope of inquiry has been a wide one. Drawing on resources far beyond the committee's membership, CSICOP has effectively refuted many dubious or fraudulent claims. Foremost among these contributions was the uncovering of several fake faith healers who were using classic Spiritualist tricks to impress their audiences.

Address: Box 703, Buffalo, NY 14226-0703.

Sources:

Clark, Jerome, and J. Gordon Melton. "The Crusade Against the Paranormal." Parts 1 and 2. Fate 32, 9 (September 1979): 70-76; 32, 10 (October 1979): 87-94.

Kurtz, Paul. The Transcendental Temptation: A Critique of Religion and the Paranormal. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986.

Kurtz, Paul, ed. A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1985.

Melton, J. Gordon, Jerome Clark, and Aidan Kelly. New Age Encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990.

Rockwell, Theodore, Robert Rockwell, and W. Teed Rockwell. "Irrational Rationalists: A Critique of the Humanists' Crusade Against Parapsychology." Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 72 (January 1971): 23-34.

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