The proper role of skeptical organizations. It seems to me that CSICOP and other skeptical

Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

The proper role of skeptical organizations. It seems to me that CSICOP and other skeptical groups have set for themselves two tasks regarding paranormal and fringe science claims. The name of CSICOP's journal, the _Skeptical Inquirer_, itself suggests this division: being skeptical about paranormal claims, and inquiring into their validity. (Paul Kurtz's introductory address to the 1992 CSICOP conference in Dallas made the point that perhaps in the past too much emphasis has been placed on the skeptical part without enough on the inquiring part. He also stated that his new book, _The New Skepticism_, argues for a constructive rather than merely negative skepticism.) It also appears to me that in addition to these two tasks, there is a natural division of subject matter. Paranormal and fringe science claims are either crazy and absurd or more serious. I'm not going to suggest a criterion for distinguishing these two broad categories, because they are to some degree subjective and relative to one's background beliefs. In general, though, more serious claims have (at least apparently) good evidence offered in support of them. I would suggest that for the purposes of organized skeptical groups, the line be drawn so that borderline cases fall onto the serious claims side. Failure to make these (and other) distinctions can lead to some serious problems. If the spokespersons for organized skeptical groups make statements without giving thought to these distinctions, they are likely to say things which will result in harsh (and deserved) criticism. As I see them, the two roles of organized skepticism--being skeptical and inquiring--can be elaborated as follows: (1) Being Skeptical: Traditionally, being skeptical means to withhold judgment in the absence of evidence. To members of organized skeptical groups, however, it usually means to reject claims in the absence of evidence. This distinction between withholding judgment and rejection--between nonbelief and disbelief--might seem to be of little practical significance. Whether I lack a belief in the efficacy of paranormal abilities or disbelieve in paranormal abilities, I am going to act as if they don't exist. With both nonbelief and disbelief, there is some threshold of evidence that has to be overcome in order to generate belief. Perhaps in the case of disbelief the threshold is higher. But I believe the distinction does make a difference with respect to more serious paranormal claims. That organized skeptical groups emphasize disbelief can be seen from the fact that they emphasize disproof of paranormal and fringe science claims. There are three types of responses which skeptics make to claims: (a) asking for evidence (any, when none has been offered; more, when some has been offered); (b) offering a refutation of the evidence offered; and (c) offering a reasonable alternative explanation which does not appeal to the paranormal or supernatural. Response (a) is the most clearly compatible with both nonbelief and disbelief. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof" suggests that one should not assent to claims without the appropriate degree of evidence, but it doesn't say whether one should withhold judgment or disbelieve in the meantime. Response (b) is also compatible with both nonbelief and disbelief, but is usually taken as an argument for disbelief. Response (c), by explicitly offering an alternative, is an argument for disbelief. Frequently overlooked is that both responses (b) and (c) themselves involve the making of claims, and thus require evidential support in order to be reasonably believed. Further, more evidence is required to support a case for disbelief than a case for nonbelief, and more evidence is required to support a case against a more serious paranormal claim than a crazy and absurd one. (It can be reasonably argued that the degree of evidential support required for a non-paranormal explanation is less than that required for a paranormal explanation, but it is difficult to see how an objective assessment of the requisite balance could be made. What should not be in question, though, is that at least some evidence is required, contrary to the view espoused by CSICOP Fellow C.E.M. Hansel. Hansel has argued that simply coming up with a possible (no matter how implausible) non- paranormal explanation for positive results in a parapsychology experiment is sufficient to show that the paranormal explanation is incorrect (or should not be believed). I don't believe Hansel's view carries much weight in CSICOP. CSICOP Executive Council member Ray Hyman has explicitly argued against this aspect of Hansel's parapsychology critiques in the pages of the _Skeptical Inquirer_.) (2) Inquiring: This involves the serious investigation (and promotion of serious investigation) of anomalies, and is a necessary precondition for responses (b) and (c) to more serious paranormal claims. CSICOP got off to a bad start with respect to this task with the Gauquelin "Mars effect" claims, and has since declared that it no longer officially sponsors any research. Instead, research is simply done by others and published in the _Skeptical Inquirer_. This is probably the right way to run things, though perhaps CSICOP should consider funding some research. (That's assuming that its financial and legal situation improves.) CSICOP should assume, I think, that _Skeptical Inquirer_ readers have some interest in the substance of paranormal claims and seeing them carefully examined. It should not assume that readers only want to hear about the claims that have been or can be debunked. It seems to me that the claims that no one has been able to successfully debunk are the most interesting and are potentially of the greatest consequence. While the book reviews, "Articles of Note" column, and "News and Comment" columns in the _Skeptical Inquirer_ do occasionally present information on as- yet-undebunked claims, the emphasis is strongly on the more absurd claims. I suggest that this emphasis may be misplaced. The publication of Suitbert Ertel's "Update on the 'Mars Effect'" in the Winter 1992 _Skeptical Inquirer_ is, in my opinion, a step in the right direction. Given these distinctions between skepticism and inquiring and between absurd and serious claims, there are four categories of actions which can be evaluated. I here offer my evaluation of CSICOP: Being Skeptical: Absurd claims. This is an effort which is both much-needed (since there is so much popular nonsense) and which CSICOP does quite well, in my opinion. CSICOP spokespersons are frequently quoted in newspapers, and the circulation of the _Skeptical Inquirer_ has been built up from about a thousand to over thirty thousand. Local skeptical groups have been started in most states and many countries, and a large part of what they do is combat credulous portrayals of paranormal and fringe science claims in the media. Being Skeptical: Serious claims. Here CSICOP does less well, simply because it gives more serious claims less coverage. It is not clear that CSICOP is even very interested in more serious claims, but perhaps would rather leave them to the scientific community to evaluate. While I would agree that the scientific community should perform the ultimate evaluation of serious claims, I would like to see CSICOP give a forum to such claims and criticisms of themQwhich would either help the claims be recognized as something worthy of investigation by the scientific community or as something not worthy of such investigation. (This pictures CSICOP as a sort of a way-station on the road to recognition by the scientific community. The critic of CSICOP would call this making CSICOP a "gate-keeper" of scientific orthodoxy, but that supposes that going through CSICOP is the *only* road to scientific respectability. It isn'tQthe Society of Scientific Exploration plays this role, and at present does so better than CSICOP. The SSE's disadvantage is that it plays to a much smaller audience.) Inquiring: Absurd claims. Because of their absurdity, absurd claims don't require much in the way of investigation. CSICOP does a fairly good job here, except on those occasions where it lets ridicule or sarcasm play the role of evidence. (I don't think that there is no place for ridicule or sarcasm, but it is no substitute for argument. I disagree with H.L. Mencken and Martin Gardner that a horselaugh is worth a thousand syllogisms. That may be true with respect to persuasive power, but it is not true with respect to evidential weight.) Inquiring: Serious claims. The articles published in the _Skeptical Inquirer_ are generally pretty good, I think, but on occasion they are somewhat superficial or do not adequately support the claims they make regarding alternative explanations. I would suggest raising the standards for publication, improving the refereeing process, and encouraging more internal criticism of published alternative explanations of paranormal claims. An argument could be made that CSICOP should dispense with serious claims completely, and leave them to other groups such as the SSE. If it were to do this, I would hope that it would make it clear that that is what it is doing. Failure to do so could wrongly lead readers to conclude that it *is* addressing the strongest pro-paranormal claims that exist. I don't think that it should ignore serious claims, however. The _Skeptical Inquirer_ should not be turned into a more academic journal, but I think serious paranormal claims deserve more popular coverage like the _Skeptical Inquirer_ can offer. (The _Skeptical Inquirer_ is presently more-or-less the skeptical counterpart of _Fate_ magazine; I'd like to see it also be sort of a _Discover_ for more serious paranormal claims which are discussed in a more technical manner elsewhere.) I said at the very beginning that the failure to draw these distinctions can lead to problems. The failure to distinguish absurd from serious claims leads to the equation of parapsychologists and fortune tellers, e.g., to make statements which imply that the claims made for ESP in the _Journal of Parapsychology_ are no better than those made in the _Weekly World News_. Failure to distinguish being skeptical from inquiry (ignoring the inquiry part) leads to an emphasis on debunking and to ignoring what evidence proponents of paranormal claims have actually put forth. (Such evidence may be rejected out of hand for being too weak to establish some strong claim, even though it may establish that something anomalous is occurring for which some explanation needs to be provided.) Failure to distinguish nonbelief from disbelief leads to erroneous statements about burden of proof in cases where the skeptic has put forth an alternative explanation without sufficient evidence. Other erroneous or implausible positions skeptics can be led into by failure to draw these distinctions are that there are no genuine anomalies, that all genuine anomalies that do exist can be explained in terms of conventional science (i.e., without the development of any new theories), or that CSICOP is the ultimate arbiter of what is true and false in the realm of paranormal and fringe science claims. That is a role that I think no organization or group of individuals can legitimately take. Comments are welcomed. Jim Lippard Lippard@CCIT.ARIZONA.EDU Dept. of Philosophy Lippard@ARIZVMS.BITNET University of Arizona Tucson, AZ 85721


E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank