Letter to America: A Short Tour of Thirty Years of British Skepticism

Wendy M. Grossman

I’ve written elsewhere about how Britain’s The Skeptic magazine was founded. I heard James Randi speak in 1981, read Skeptical Inquirer, attended the 1985 London CSICOP conference, and asked what I could do. Starting a newsletter in Britain was suggested. It’s still alive.

What hasn’t been collated anywhere is a précis of some of the odder events since. The good stuff that came after the magazine everyone knows about: the rampant success of QED and the Merseyside Skeptics under the leadership of Michael Marshall; the work of ASKE, masterminded by Michael Heap; and the many Skeptics in the Pub meets and fellow-traveling groups such as Good Thinking Society, which Simon Singh founded after the triumphant, judicial ruling in his favor that reversed the verdict in the libel case brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association.

In the 1990s, the Southampton Skeptics, led by Martin Hempstead and Robin Allen, mounted a series of fire walks around the country. Armed with a commission to write about it for The Independent newspaper, I attended an early example in Southampton. The event itself was basically “Yay, physics!” The amazing thing for me was walking into a packed university auditorium filled with people buzzing with excitement for an initial lecture before experiencing it for themselves. The best part about it was that I had nothing to do with it. Allen and Hempstead met through the letter pages of the magazine and took it from there. 

This was the first indication that the magazine might fulfill its purpose: to provide the basis for a movement. At the time, CSICOP was encouraging many new local and international groups and published a guide to help them get started. I still pass the most useful piece of its advice to people trying to start something that will have legs: start on day one to look for your successor. That, I think, is the difference between building a movement and building a business. 

In Britain, you haven’t arrived unless someone has found it worthwhile to try to make you look stupid. This moment arrived in 2004, when four of us were asked to appear on a TV show to test a psychic, they said.  We were asked to bring various things, and I remember getting advice on the best way to prevent fakery. We were all filmed on the same day but kept apart—our first clue something was off. As I recall, in my interview, the psychic in question, “Shirley Ghostman,” was strikingly hostile. My contemporaneous account says that I  turned to the show’s producers and said it was very odd because most mediums try to be sympathetic.  

It was the clever debunker Tony Youens who figured it out first. “If that man is a psychic, I’m a lion-tamer,” he emailed while Chris French and I were still exchanging “WTF was that?” texts. Chris agreed and suggested it may have been a comedy stunt. I called a TV contact. 

Less than forty-eight hours after we left the studio, I called to ask the producer if we’d been filming for the Marc Wootton project. You could practically hear the blood drain from his face as he asked how we’d figured it out. 

If this happened now, I wouldn’t worry so much. But at the time, I was genuinely afraid that if we were presented on TV as people who couldn’t identify a fake psychic when one bit us, our painstakingly built credibility would be damaged. So the next day, when my weekly net.wars column on computers, freedom, and privacy went up, it revealed the hoax. The producers begged me to take it down and keep their secret until broadcast. I kept it up; I felt it was insurance. The show is still on YouTube.

In 2016, there came what I think was a second attempt at spoofing us, when I spent two bizarre  hours being interviewed in a studio that was empty except for three mute camera operators and a guy the producer said was being auditioned for a pilot. I don’t know what they really wanted; I don’t know if they got it. I do know I never lost my temper because I thought that might be their agenda. Afterward, I withdrew my consent, emailing the producer that I felt the situation had been misrepresented, and that voided the release. Again, I posted a column and a longer detailed account as insurance. I still have no idea what the story was.

Two other incidents are worthy of brief note. The first is an obscure book I won’t name that gives a somewhat imaginary account of our history. Sample: the author thinks my going on to write about computers showed my “commitment to industrial science.” The other is a 2018 web page that says transphobia is rampant in the British media, and it’s our fault because in 2013 the Soho Skeptics ran a single meeting that featured, along with two trans activists, two feminists. I have no idea what to say to this except “Huh?”

Of course, a lot of other things happened, too. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to say there’s more skepticism in Britain than I could have dreamt of in my philosophy in 1987.

Wendy M. Grossman

Wendy M. Grossman is an American freelance writer based in London. She is the founder of Britain's The Skeptic magazine, for which she served as editor from 1987-1989 and 1998-2000. For the last 30 years she has covered computers, freedom, and privacy for publications such as the Guardian, Scientific American, and New Scientist. She is a CSI Fellow.