Keeping the Faith

Paul Kurtz (editor). Skeptical Odysseys: Personal Accounts by the World's Leading Paranormal Inquirers. Prometheus Books. 2001.

A sort of festschrift for CSICOP'S 25th birthday, in which leading members give their memories of their involvement with the skeptics' movement. Like all such compilations the content is variable, with some amusing asides. My favourite is the account of Stanton Friedman's encounter with a notorious Canadian TV host, the sort who makes Jeremy Paxman look like the model of polite reticence. After Friedman finished one of his standard spiels, the politician-eater looked him in the eye, and said, "That's biggest load of shite I have heard in my life". On this occasion Stan did not threaten to sue for libel.

I have to say that such anecdotes are not the main tone of the book, much of which is rather earnest, mixed in with the self congratulations which is standard for 'authorised' institutional histories. There are other interesting undertones. Some of the entries have the feeling of the conversion narrative: they encounter CSICOP, see the light and put their old life of credulity behind them. In some cases this is connected with meeting or seeing a lecture by one of the heroic founder generation (James Randi, Paul Kurtz, Phil Klass, etc). A number of the contributors seem to have been people who lost their childhood religious faith when reading science at university. For them CSICOP offers a new faith to be fought for and a new community of shared belief.

Despite the subtitle, CSICOP is not really a research organisation, and few of the contributors seem to be currently active research scientists. They arc a mixture of the retired, people in business or academic administration, media folks and journalists, with perhaps the largest component being amateur or semi-professional magicians. CSICOP is essentially an advocacy organisation, or what sociologists call a moral crusade. This does not imply that the cause is necessarily an unworthy one, and several of the contributors point to obvious causes for concern, such as companies forcing their managers to attend New Age motivational courses, or the teaching of pseudo-sciences like 'magnetic therapeutic touch' in nursing schools as part of compulsory courses, or the activities of those who batten onto the grief and distress of others for money and power.

But in many ways CSICOP can look like a mirror image of the paranormalists they criticise. They both over estimate the cultural significance of paranormal claims, both believe that if only their view of world were to be adopted then society might in some sense be redeemed. Both lay claim to open mindedness, yet when it comes to the crunch both prefer to be part of a comfortable club of the like-minded than opt for conflicts of ideas and outlooks. CUFOS chucked out Robert Sheaffer, MUFON chucked out Dennis Stacy, while CSICOP chucked out Marcello Truzzi and Dennis Rawlins. All essentially for the same reason, ideological deviation. - Peter Rogerson.

[Thanks to 'Terry the Censor' for the link]

1 comment:

Terry the Censor said...

> Stanton Friedman's encounter with a notorious Canadian TV host

I could find only one full episode of this programme online but luckily it is the one with Friedman. STF's segment begins at the 2:00 mark, the host's remark is at 8:00.

Friedman admonishes Shulman to read the Roswell Incident. Shulman says he had: "I've never heard such a pile of s--t in my whole life."

(Note: Dr. Shulman was a crusading coroner and publicly admonished professions and governments to improve safety standards. He didn't take sh*t from anyone.)