The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (List of Fellows ) is a well-funded debunking organization with a $4 million headquarters building in Amherst, New York, and a $5 million West Coast center in Los Angeles.
CSI shares its headquarters with the Council for Secular Humanism and an organization devoted to debunking alternative medicine, called the Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health (CSMMH). All are initiatives of The Center for Inquiry (CFI), a nonprofit advocacy organization.
CSI has dedicated professional staff and employees, and runs a very effective public relations operation. It publishes the Skeptical Inquirer, “the magazine for science and reason”. It also has an array of fellows, including journalists, academics, and prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.
When he announced the change of name from CSICOP to CSI in the January 2007 Skeptical Inquirer, then-Chair Paul Kurtz looked back over CSICOP’s past and made it clear that the organization’s agenda was rooted in an ideological commitment: “We viewed ourselves as the defenders of the Enlightenment”. Mixing his metaphors, he continued, “CSI will function as a Socratic gadfly, using the best tools of scientific inquiry and analysis to ferret out what is at stake”.
CSICOP was founded at the 1976 convention of the American Humanist Association. In an interview for Science magazine, Lee Nisbet, the CSICOP Executive Director, explained its position as follows: “[Belief in the paranormal is] a very dangerous phenomenon. Dangerous to science, dangerous to the basic fabric of our society … We feel it is the duty of the scientific community to show that these beliefs are utterly screwball.” However, like many of the leading figures in CSICOP, Nisbett himself is not a scientist and has no scientific qualifications.
Since CSICOP was founded, it has either set up or formed alliances with debunking organizations in many different countries, as listed in each issue of the Skeptical Inquirer.
CSICOP’s primary efforts are directed to influencing public opinion. The Skeptical Inquirer carries innumerable articles decrying the media’s treatment of the paranormal and describes CSICOP’s attempts to combat the favourable coverage.
These priorities are particularly striking in its Manual For Local Regional And National Groups (1987). Seventeen pages are devoted to “Handling the Media” and “Public Relations”, but only three pages are given to “scientific investigation”.
These points were made very clearly by Nisbet in an article to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of CSICOP in the Skeptical Inquirer of November/December 2001.
CSICOP originated “to fight mass-media exploitation of supposedly ‘occult’ and ‘paranormal’ phenomena. The strategy was two-fold: First, to strengthen the hand of skeptics in the media by providing information that ‘debunked’ paranormal wonders. Second, to serve as a ‘media-watchdog’ group which would direct public and media attention to egregious media exploitation of the supposed paranormal wonders. An underlying principle of action was to use the main-line media’s thirst for public-attracting controversies to keep our activities in the media, hence in the public eye. Who thought this strategy up? Well, Paul Kurtz, that’s who.”
Although the title of CSICOP implied that it is engaged in scientific investigation, the only instance in which the Committee actually carried out an investigation was a fiasco.
Right at the beginning of CSICOP’s history, Kurtz attacked the astrological findings of Michel Gauquelin, who claimed to have found that the position of Mars at a person’s birth was related to sports ability. Data were collected and analysed by CSICOP, with results that supported Gauquelin’s findings.
Some members of the committee charged Kurtz with trying to cover up these findings and suggested that the outcome, favourable to Gauquelin, should be frankly acknowledged. Kurtz was enraged by this opinion and refused to heed it. Several members of the CSICOP committee resigned in protest. (A detailed account of this controversy by Dennis Rawlins, one of the co-founder’s of CSICOP, can be read at CSICOP controversy.)
In 1981, CSICOP adopted a formal policy of not conducting research
In his book The Trickster and the Paranormal (2001), George P. Hansen published an interesting analysis of CSICOP and its activities. Here are some of his conclusions: “The Committee’s primary function is to marginalize the paranormal. … Status consciousness is one of the Committee’s salient characteristics. CSICOP goes to considerable lengths to assure its status and respectability in the eyes of scientific, academic, and media elites. It has gathered an impressive roster of members, including five Nobel Laureates (though none of them has ever published research on the paranormal).
“Because CSICOP is so status conscious, scientific investigation is inappropriate for it. If a serious, sustained effort were undertaken to investigate the paranormal, that by itself would confer status upon the topic. It would signal the paranormal to be worthy of study. Instead, the Committee belittles such efforts, and its magazine carries cartoons and caricatures that ridicule researchers.”
– The Klass Files (at CSICOP) “Special Articles — The Skeptics UFO Newsletter. The Klass Files, by journalist and UFO researcher Philip Klass.”
Criticism of CSI / CSICOP
– Has CSICOP Lost the 30 Years’ War? A history of CSICOP on this website.
– A Critical Look at CSI, (formerly CSICOP), a Pseudo-Scientific Skeptic Organization Craig Weiler, Weiler Psi Blog, August 30, 2011