hoaxes and fraud,
Local Skeptics Groups
|By Jeanine DeNoma|
The national skeptics scene
There are three national skeptical organizations in the US, each with its own flavor and focus. The oldest and most widely known skeptics organization is the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). It was founded by SUNY-Buffalo philosophy professor Dr. Paul Kurtz in 1976 at a conference on “The New Irrationalism: Antiscience and Pseudoscience.” CSICOP publishes the national magazine Skeptical Inquirer, now available on news stands and in many libraries, as well as by subscription. CSICOP has assisted with the founding of many independent local skeptics groups, including O4R, by providing networking among Skeptical Inquirer subscribers within local regions.
The Skeptic Society in Altadena, CA, was established by Michael Shermer, author and professor of science history at Occidental College, California State University-Los Angeles, and Glendale College. The Skeptic Society publishes Skeptic magazine, available by subscription only. Skeptic is exceptionally thorough in its examination of all sides of “extraordinary claims, revolutionary ideas and the promotion of science.” Its articles are noteworthy for their depth and academic style. At the back of each issue of Skeptic is a substantive youth section called “Jr. Skeptic.” It is oriented to young teen readers but might also be useful to teachers of this age group.
Finally, there is the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), founded by author, 1986 MacArthur Foundation Fellow, and professional magician James Randi. CSICOP named Randi the century’s leading skeptic. He is noted for his activities investigating and debunking claims of paranormal powers, including his offer of a $1,000,000 prize to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal powers under scientifically controlled conditions.
Organizations with related missions
Additionally, there are many educational organizations that voice skeptical positions on specific issues related to pseudoscience. Some are scientific organizations, but others have a broader focus, such as providing emotional, legal or political support. These include, but are not limited to, the topics and organizations listed below.
Creationism. The National Center for Science Education assists parents and educators with defending against attacks on evolution in public education.
UFOs. Philip Klass, author and former senior editor of Aviation Week and Space Technology, tracks the activities of UFO organizations and promoters. Klass publishes the bimonthly Skeptics UFO Newsletter. Subscriptions are $15/year, send to 404 “N” St. S.W. Washington DC 20024.
Alternative medical claims and medical quackery. A number of groups track pseudoscience, quackery, and fraud in medicine and healthcare. Among the best of these are The National Council for Reliable Health Information, available on the Web at www.ncrhi.org, and Quackwatch at www.quackwatch.com. Prometheus Books publishes The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, edited by Dr. Wallace Sampson. O4R subscribes to this journal and issues are available on loan to O4R members through the O4R library.
False memories. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation (www.fmsfonline.org) located in Philadelphia, PA, acts as a clearing house for information and research on memory and repressed memory therapy. The FMSF also provides legal, emotional and networking support for individuals who feel they have been falsely accused as a result of therapy-created memories.
Urban legends. The San Fernando Valley Folklore Society provides one of the most comprehensive collections of urban legends on their web site at www.snopes.com Here you can access their large collection of legends (go to their urban legend reference page) and a list of currently circulating legends.
Consumer protection. The activities of many consumer organizations, as well as government agencies, frequently overlap with that of skeptic’s when fraud or dubious scientific claims are used to promote products. In 1998, after a seven-month investigation, Oregon’s Attorney General prohibited selling the “Blue Ball” or “The Laundry Solution” after chemists determined the product did not use “specially structured water” and could not break up dirt by emitting a negative charge as its manufacturer claimed.
Scientists and scientific societies are also beginning to speak out against the many pseudosciences that abuse scientific disciplines and obfuscate scientific understanding. Events such as that which occurred last year in Kansas, when evolution was struck from the state’s science standards, have helped spur more scientists into action.
Local organizational structures
It’s important to recognize that local groups have no formal affiliation with any of the national skeptics organization. Nor is there any official connection among local groups. Although at various times there have been discussions among local leaders about uniting under some kind of umbrella organization, no such organization has yet emerged. As this article was being written, CSICOP announced that Bela Scheiber, president of the Rocky Mountain Skeptics and a member of the CSICOP executive council, would act as the local groups’ liaison person.
Like the national organizations, each local skeptics group has its own organizational structure and focus depending upon the dedication and expertise of its members. All viable organizations, skeptics groups included, require active participation by its membership, but it is not uncommon to find local groups kept alive by the tireless efforts of one or two dedicated members. Other groups have large, active memberships.
In the Spring 2000 issue of The New England Journal of Skepticism, assistant editor Perry DeAngelis surveyed the leadership, organizational structures, and activities of east coast local skeptics groups. The New England Skeptic Society (NESS) is well established with strong bylaws and a structure for a consistent leadership. This structure, reports DeAngelis, has helped NESS avoid problems other groups have reported, such as attempts at “takeovers from members with varying agendas other than scientific skepticism.” NESS is also interesting in that it encompasses three states, each with its own chapter and officers; these state officers come together to form a nine-person Executive Board which then selects a chairperson every two years.
Some local groups are informally organized, while others have legal nonprofit corporation status. Oregonians for Rationality is an Oregon 501(c) educational nonprofit. As required by law, O4R operates under bylaws, holds an annual meeting and elects its Board of Directors accordingly. O4R’s educational nonprofit status prohibits us from participating in political activities.
Many local groups, responding to local needs and events, have developed their own areas of expertise. In some cases, issues raised by the local skeptical organization have had a significant influence on actions within their community. The Rocky Mountain Skeptics, lead by Bela Scheiber, set the standard for effective local action by a skeptics group when, in 1994, their actions lead the University of Colorado School of Nursing to reexamine its practice of approving nursing credits for classes in Therapeutic Touch (TT). Supporters of TT claim they can “feel” and correct abnormalities in human energy fields, thereby relieving pain and hastening healing, by waving their hands above their patients. Scheiber and anthropologist/community-activist Carla Selby have just published a history of TT and an anthology of research papers on TT in a new book called Therapeutic Touch (Prometheus Books, 2000).
Local groups in Kentucky and New Mexico have actively opposed creationist agendas in public education. In Alabama, a 20-member group formed after CSICOP contacted its leader with concerns about an unchecked rise in creationism. With NCSE’s assistance, the group has been working to get an evolution disclaimer removed from public textbooks. The Tampa Bay Skeptics of Florida have assisted with investigations relating to Randi’s $1,000,000 challenge. Eric Krieg, president of the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking (PhACT), has years of experience tracking “free energy” advocates. He alerted O4R, as well as other skeptics groups and media sources, to Dennis Lee’s national tour to promote sales of a “300% efficient” motor. Consequently, scam warnings appeared in local newspapers around the country as Lee arrived in their cities. A group of O4R engineers and physicists attended Lee’s Portland talk and conducted preliminary tests on his motor (see Pro Facto V.5 No.4). There are numerous other examples of effective local activism.
As local group leaders gain credibility as knowledgeable spokespersons about paranormal claims and the evidence for and against such claims, they are often called upon by the local media to respond to events that occur in their communities. Other leaders have ended up writing extensively about paranormal issues.
When a Springfield, Illinois, TV station reported the face of a baby had appeared on a tree scheduled to be cut down, the local newspaper called David Bloomberg, chairman of the Rational Examination Association of Lincoln Land (REALL). He explained how the human mind commonly finds patterns in all kinds of everyday items, leading people to see everything from “Elvis in a pizza and Kermit the Frog on Mars.” (See Pro Facto V.5 No.3 for Bloomberg’s account of events.) Bloomberg also found himself writing extensively on the Bennett Braum case. Braum was an Illinois leader in the movement to recover repressed memories who has since lost his license to practice medicine.
New Mexicans for Science and Reason (NMSR) have tracked and responded to events in Roswell. Alan Hale, astronomer, codiscoverer of the Hale-Bopp Comet and NMSR member, has written on astronomy and UFOs. NMSR president Dave Thomas is author of multiple articles examining Bible Code claims. These and many other local leaders are familiar to readers of Skeptical Inquirer.
Almost all local groups sponsor and participate in educational activities such as hosting speakers, conducting workshops, investigating paranormal claims, and publishing a newsletter. CSICOP has facilitated the exchange of newsletters among local groups. Copies of Pro Facto are sent CSICOP who then distributes packets of newsletters to each local group editor. It is because of this exchange that many articles appearing in Pro Facto originally have been published in other newsletters. Many groups have webpages, some with extensive resource materials on paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. Krieg, PhACT president, maintains an extensive resource file on the free energy movement on his web page at www.syc.org/e/dennis.html. The National Capital Area Skeptics (NCAS) have published the entire Condon Report, the largest scientific UFO report ever generated, on their website at www.ncas.org.
Most local group leaders agree that networking and socializing is one of their group’s most important activities. Skeptics commonly complain there aren’t many places where they can talk freely about their philosophies. In other venues, it’s more common to be in the company of people with magnetic insoles, new age ideas, or religious beliefs that contradict scientific evidence. Local groups are a great place to meet other skeptics. (I’m purposely avoiding using the phrase “like-minded people” here—if there is anything skeptics are noted for, it is independence of thought.)
Skeptical philosophy and focus
Skeptics groups focus primarily on challenging unsupported claims of paranormal powers, exposing hoaxes and fraud, promoting an understanding of scientific methods, and encouraging critical thinking. Traditional subjects of interest include pseudosciences like creationism and astrology; supernatural claims like faith healing, ghosts and spiritualism; and paranormal powers like psychic ability and remote viewing. Interest has expanded into subjects such as alternative medical claims, millennial fears, conspiracy theories, and recovered memories. Groups also examine topics related to science, problem analysis, and thinking.
Religion has been an issue of controversy in the skeptical scene, in part because the founder of CSICOP, Dr. Paul Kurtz, was also the leader of the Council for Secular Humanism. Another source of the controversy is the term “skeptic” which is also often used to denote “religious skepticism.” Skeptics organizations, however, have in most cases avoided untestable belief-based issues, preferring to remain scientific organizations. “Most local groups now state, informally or formally, that the belief or disbelief in God is not an issue appropriate to their forum,” writes Stephanie Hall, a folklorist who has studied and written about organized skepticism.
“In 1997 Paul Kurtz called a joint meeting of leaders of skeptics and secular humanist groups in Buffalo to discuss the creation of “centers for inquiry” in several US cities. The proposal included shared use of these educational centers... According to attendees at this event, all but two skeptics groups present declined this invitation. Skeptics group leaders felt that formal affiliation with an atheist group would cause a decline in their membership” (Hall, 2000).
Scientific integrity and acceptance of member’s theistic beliefs are the most commonly cited reasons for avoiding an affiliation with atheist groups. Martin Gardner is cited as an example of a theist who has made a tremendous contribution to skeptical causes. Steven Novella, M.D., president of NESS, and David Bloomberg, chairman of REALL, wrote at length on the relationship of religion to scientific skepticism in an article titled “Scientific skepticism, CSICOP, and the local groups” in the July/August 1999 Skeptical Inquirer,a special issue on science and religion.
Who joins skeptics groups anyway?
Ethnographic information about who joins skeptics groups is scarce. Hall (2000) surveyed members of the NCAS and from a preliminary tally found members ranged in age from 27 to 87, “the average member had a Master’s Degree, and one quarter of the respondents were women.”
Attend almost any skeptics meeting and you may leave with the impression it is an organization for the older, well-educated, white male. This stereotype, however, is becoming less accurate as there has been a conscious effort by national skeptics organizations to increase their appeal to younger members, women, and minorities. The median age of skeptics groups, at least, appears to be dropping (Hall, 2000).
“Where the girls aren’t”
Most local skeptics groups have noted the absence of women among their membership. Shelia Gibson, self-named “skepchik” and chair of the Massachusetts chapter of NESS, researched the issue and reported “The skeptical gender gap became brutally clear whenever I visited the ladies room...I noticed the absence of a social phenomenon that even now...tortures innocent women everywhere. No matter where a conference was sited, what time of the day it was, or which bathroom I choose, there is never a line for the ladies room.”
Where are the women? There are, in fact, many local groups with women among their leadership; it’s the absence of numbers that I am referring to here. Ask why and you’ll get as many ideas as people you ask. Women generally point to a few main issues: 1) Family and work demands leave women with little time for any outside activities. 2) Sexism among male members creates an unpleasant atmosphere for women. 3) Groups seldom focus on topics of interest to women. 4) Skeptics are generally recruited from the sciences, fields with fewer women.
Gibson raises the point that “maybe skeptical women are just different.” She quotes one woman who said, “Women who participate don’t necessarily have a science background and they don’t fit female stereotypes. They seem comfortable in groups of men. Being the only woman doesn’t bother them.”
Just being a skeptic, male or female, probably means one is at least somewhat
comfortable being out-of-step with the mainstream. One reward for affiliation
with an organized skeptics group is the interaction that occurs among seriously-mindful
and thought-challenging skeptics.
DeAngelis, Perry. 2000. A look around the local skeptical scene. The New England Journal of Skepticism (newsletter of The New England Skeptical Society) 3(2):15-17.
Gibson, Shelia. 1999. Where the girls aren’t. The New England Journal of Skepticism 2(4):6-7.
Hall, Stephanie. 2000. Folklore and the rise of moderation among organized skeptics. Web published at www.temple.edu/isllc/newfolk/skeptics.html in Impromptu Journal. March 2000.
Novella, Steven and David Bloomberg. 1999. Scientific skepticism, CSICOP, and the local groups. Skeptical Inquirer 23(4):44-46.
Rocky Mountain Skeptics. The Official University of Colorado Report on Therapeutic Touch. August 1994.
Wymer, DeeAnne. 1996.
Why are there so few women skeptics? Phactum (newsletter of the
Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking) Fall 1996.
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