It’s CSI Now, Not CSICOP

Kendrick Frazier

Kendrick Frazier & The Executive Council

CSICOP’s name has been shortened. The Executive Council of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) has formally adopted a shorter name for the organization: Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI).

The decision came in a daylong meeting of the Executive Council (which also serves as SI’s Editorial Board) in Oak Brook, Illinois, on September 23, 2006. It will become official as soon as the appropriate legal papers have been filed and processed. CSICOP and our flagship publication the Skeptical Inquirer celebrated thirtieth anniversaries in 2006 (see SI March/April 2006, p. 13; July/August 2006, pp. 13—14; September/October 2006, pp. 13—19).

During those three decades, the name has been both a help and a hindrance. The “CSICOP” acronym is widely known and has served the organization well, but the full name of the committee has always been somewhat problematic.

Because so many of you have been with us a long time and feel a deep attachment to the organization, for which we are grateful, we thought we would discuss with you some of the rationale for the name change.

The first and less substantive concern has been the name’s length. A shorter, more succinct name has long been desired by many of us within CSICOP (now CSI). Almost nobody can remember our full, ten-word name properly. It takes a long time even to say it. In this modern media age, brevity is important. Newspapers and most magazines are obligated by style and usage to publish the full name of any organization they write about, but they obviously prefer shorter names; radio and TV can’t and won’t use a long name for an organization. CSICOP staff and associated scholars and investigators who do media interviews often have resorted to a variety of shortcut references to get any mention of the organization at all included. These same concerns come up repeatedly in discussions with people not already familiar with us about who we are and what we do.

The more substantive concern involved the last word in our name, “paranormal.” For one thing, we have never been limited to just the “paranormal.” From the beginning we have been concerned with all manner of empirical claims credulously accepted without sufficient critical examination. Our goal has been to provide scientific examinations of these claims, so that reliable, factbased, verified information can be used in making judgments about them. We have used terms such as “pseudoscientific” and “fringe-science” or even “paranatural” as adjectives to portray that larger realm. But even those terms, broad as they may seem, are limiting.

Our broader, overarching purpose is to encourage critical inquiry, scientific thinking, and the scientific outlook. In short, to promote science and reason. More and more we are concerned with science-related issues that have broad public-policy importance, especially where the science is being misrepresented or misused or ignored. Our original core focus on the “paranormal” was partly because that was where a lot of misinformation and intentional disinformation existed. Also, paranormal topics had broad appeal to the public and the media, and the scientific community was basically ignoring them, allowing promoters of the paranormal to go unchallenged. To a certain extent all that is still true. Nevertheless, our underlying interest has never been the paranormal per se, but larger topics and issues such as how our beliefs in such things arise, how our minds work to deceive us, how we think, how our critical thinking capabilities can be improved, what are the answers to certain uninvestigated mysteries, what damage is caused by uncritical acceptance of untested claims, how critical attitudes and scientific thinking can be better taught, how good science can be encouraged and bad science exposed, and so on and on.

CSI’s mission to promote the application of rational thought to public discourse has always attracted world-class scientists and scholars to this endeavor. But many of them (or at least their colleagues) feel that the word “paranormal” in the name of CSICOP makes the scope of the committee appear narrower than it actually is. It always required an explanation that we weren’t the promoters of the paranormal but the scientific investigators, the critical evaluators. Finally, many academics and others just didn’t want to be associated at all with anything with the paranormal in its name, no matter the context. Many of us understood, and some even shared the feeling. As we look to the future, CSI seeks to expand its reach, and the Executive Council felt that focusing CSI on skepticism rather than the paranormal would convey the interests of CSI more broadly.

In 1996 the Executive Council formed a subcommittee to consider a possible name change. The subcommittee did so, but in the end decided not to recommend a change. But this time the Executive Council, after an extended discussion, decided on a change.

The decision to shorten the name came first and was easiest. Deciding on the actual name proved more complicated. One goal was to shorten the name but maintain key words. Another was, ideally, to keep the same first initials. All permutations of many possible names were discussed, but the choice finally came down to three: Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Committee for Scientific Investigation, and Committee for Scientific Inquiry. “Committee for Scientific Investigation” had the advantage of maintaining intact the first four words of our name, but some felt it was overly broad, even a little presumptuous. “. . . Scientific Inquiry” was also seriously considered. But in the end, “Committee for Skeptical Inquiry” was chosen, in large part because it was the most specific and it includes the root words of our magazine’s title, the Skeptical Inquirer. (The Executive Council members, by the way, felt our magazine’s name works well and should not be tinkered with. Our subtitle, The Magazine for Science and Reason, was also praised.)

(Another side note: “Council,” “Commission,” “Association” and other such words were considered for the first word of the name but rejected for a variety of reasons, including the fact that we are often referred to or thought of as “the Committee.”)

CSICOP is to many of us a beloved name (or acronym), and we expect many of us will continue to use it for some time while transitioning in our own minds to CSI. The new abbreviation, by the way, is pronounced C-S-I (not “psi”!). And yes, we know there is a popular scienceoriented television program (actually three of them) with CSI in the title but thought, frankly, that that was as much an advantage for us as a disadvantage.

These same discussions led the Executive Council, at the same meeting, also to make several changes to the organization’s mission statement, which appears in short form on the back cover of every issue of SI. The more general, overarching statement of our mission was placed first: “. . . promotes science and scientific inquiry, critical thinking, science education, and the use of reason in examining important issues.” The reference to “investigation of paranormal and fringe-science claims” from a responsible point of view was replaced with “investigation of controversial or extraordinary claims.” This thus ratifies the broader mission we have already long been pursuing. In fact, the Executive Council encouraged CSI and the Skeptical Inquirer to continue to widen their purview to new sciencerelated issues at the intersection of science and public concerns, while not ignoring our core topics.

Implicit in all this is that, as before, we provide quality, informed scientific analysis and deal preferentially, if not always exclusively, with empirical, testable, fact-based claims, not assertions based mostly on opinion or ideology.

—Kendrick Frazier (Member, Executive Council, and editor, Skeptical Inquirer), for all members of the Executive Council: James E. Alcock, Barry Beyerstein, Thomas Casten, Kendrick Frazier, Ray Hyman, Paul Kurtz, Lee Nisbet, Amardeo Sarma, and Benjamin Wolozin [newly elected]; Barry Karr, ex officio)

Kendrick Frazier

Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.