"Skeptically Speaking" Column #2 -- Oct. 1991

By Gary P. Posner


The Skeptics Movement

Prior to 1976, the scientific community was generally divided into two camps as far as reports of paranormal phenomena were concerned. The larger simply ignored such claims, feeling that it was beneath the dignity of scientists to even bother contemplating such "nonsense." The other was prone to off-the-cuff proclamations of denial, often without benefit of having obtained sufficient data with which to formulate a justifiable opinion. Hardly the "scientific method" in action.

But this all began to change in 1976, when about two dozen scientists, authors, and scholars (among them Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, B. F. Skinner, Martin Gardner, and James Randi) founded the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal in Buffalo, NY. CSICOP has since mushroomed into an international phenomenon, serving as a clearinghouse for inquiries from the media and individuals from around the world, and publishing a critically acclaimed journal, Skeptical Inquirer  (now with a readership of about 40,000).

Even more unexpected than the sheer explosion of interest in and talent within CSICOP has been the emergence of local groups with similar aims, both in this country and globally. At last count there were 37 such groups serving 29 states and DC, with another 36 groups in 21 other countries, including one in the USSR, where glasnost has ushered in a "new age" curtain to partially replace the rusted iron one.

Three years ago I founded the only such group in Florida, the Tampa Bay Skeptics (TBS). We admit our bias -- we are highly skeptical of paranormal claims -- but are willing and eager to subject them to objective, critical scrutiny, and to let the chips fall wherever. We expect that such chips will continue to fall where they have thus far, but we are open-minded to the remote possibility that one may one day land in a most unanticipated place.

TBS is presently offering a "$1,000 Challenge" prize (and a place in history) to any local UFOlogist, psychic, astrologer, or the like, should anyone come forth with verifiable scientific proof of any paranormal phenomenon, under conditions which eliminate the possibility of cheating or self-delusion. So far we have had one taker, one welsher, and one no-show (details next time), and (unfortunately?) we still have our money.

A year before I founded TBS, I began the "Skeptic" Member-to-Member Service for my fellow Mensans, and have received about 100 inquiries so far. One of the first was from David Group, a freelance writer in Geneseo, NY, who was conducting research for a book on astrology, to be structured as if it were a debate between a scientist/skeptic and an astrologer/believer. He later wrote back to say that the articles I provided to him (from Skeptical Inquirer ) "contain a more detailed examination of astrology than many books I've read."

Group's final product, an 84-page monograph entitled Astrology: Does It Work?  (Pitbull Press, Buffalo, 1990) is a well-balanced effort, which is all that we skeptics ask, but which may be too much for the believers. To wit, the witty last line of Group's "Introduction": "Senders of death threats and letter bombs will receive personal replies from local and federal law enforcement agencies."


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