New Directions for Skeptical Inquiry

Paul Kurtz

The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) has reached an historic juncture: the recognition that there is a critical need to change our direction. Under the new name, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) will not confine itself primarily to the scientific investigation of claims of the paranormal—we never have—but will deal with a wider range of questionable claims that have emerged in the contemporary world. Actually, the subtitle of Skeptical Inquirer —The Magazine for Science and Reason—is the best description of our overall mission: to explicate and defend the importance of scientific inquiry, thus contributing to the public understanding of science.

When we founded CSICOP in 1976, we were concerned with the proliferation of paranormal claims in the media that were unexamined by scientific investigators. These were often on the borderlines of science. When we announced our intention of creating CSICOP, many scientists heralded the role that we were to play. At long last an organization composed of scientists, educators, investigators, and journalists proposed to carefully investigate alleged mysterious phenomena, which were not being adequately examined by the scientific community.

These questions were generally interdisciplinary; they fell between the cracks of existing disciplines. Distinguished scientists rallied under our banner from the start—including Carl Sagan, Steven Jay Gould, Isaac Asimov, Richard Dawkins, and Nobel Prize winners Murray Gell- Mann, Francis Crick, Glenn Seaborg, Leon Lederman, and others. We also enlisted well-known investigators of the paranormal, such as James Randi, Philip J. Klass, Martin Gardner, Ray Hyman, and others. Scientists worldwide embraced our agenda such as astronomer Cornelius de Jaeger (The Netherlands), Jean-Claude Pecker (France), and Nobel laureate scientists in Italy. We were interested in criticizing the distortions in the media of alleged phenomena, from psychics and UFOlogists to astrologers and faith healers. These posed, in our view, a threat to the integrity of science, for they fudged the differences between genuine science and pseudoscience. We soon discovered that it was often difficult to draw a sharp demarcation line between these two areas; empirical inquiry was the only sensible approach. We were ever careful not to squelch new proto-sciences that might emerge. After thirty years we have established a record in which naturalistic causal explanations for such alleged phenomena are now available. The “paranormal” has been deflated in field after field.

We of course had a broader motive: to explicate the methods of scientific methodology and the scientific outlook, to encourage scientific education, and the development of critical thinking. We viewed ourselves as the defenders of the Enlightenment.

Today there are new challenges to science. For example, the field of biogenetic engineering provides exciting opportunities for the growth of knowledge and its applications to human betterment. Yet powerful moral, theological, and political forces have opposed scientific research on a whole number of issues— such as stem-cell embryonic research. On the other hand, pro-scientific proponents say that we are faced with “a New Singularity,” and that life-extension programs of research offer great promises for extending life. Science demands rigorous peer review. The excessive extrapolation of possible breakthroughs needs careful evaluation. Thus skeptical inquiry needs to examine such claims impartially. There are still other challenges that will no doubt emerge.

Under its new title, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry will endeavor to be true to its early mission. We intend to invite leading scientific investigators from a variety of fields to carefully evaluate questionable claims and will criticize those who would block science in the name of occult force—such as the imposition of the concept of “soul” to thwart the investigation of the brain. As such, CSI will function as a Socratic gadfly, using the best tools of scientific inquiry and analysis to ferret out what is at stake. Hopefully it can contribute to the public appreciation of science and also distinguish pseudoscientific claims from genuine ones. We have not abandoned the examination of paranormal claims, but we have extended our net more widely to deal with other areas that have provoked controversy.

The Executive Council of CSICOP embarks in this new direction with great enthusiasm. The “new skepticism” that we have cultivated recognizes that skepticism is an important part of the process of scientific inquiry. This it is not simply negative debunking; it can make significant constructive contributions to the development of reliable knowledge.

The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry is part of the broader Center for Inquiry Transnational movement. It likewise is committed to science, reason, and free inquiry in every area of human interest. This, we hope, will greatly enhance the cooperative worldwide efforts to extend the frontiers of scientific knowledge for the benefit of humanity.

Paul Kurtz

Professor Paul Kurtz is the founder of the Center for Inquiry, CFI’s former chairman, the former Editor-in-Chief of Free Inquiry magazine, and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Kurtz has spent much of his life on the critical examination of religion, but believes that naturalists need to emphasize and build positive alternatives to religion. For Kurtz, it is not enough to reject God, but to affirm the positive implications of the secular humanist perspective.