Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

A group of skeptics that actively look into any claims of the paranormal or supernatural. They aren't people willing to just quickly accept an explanation, but look deeply into the issue to see if there are more mundane explanations.

To date, they haven't found one event which they couldn't easily explain.

CSICOP is imperfect. In certain cases such a critique is to some degree justified. But from my point of view CSICOP serves an important social function--as a well-known organization to which media can apply when they wish to hear the other side of the story, especially when some amazing claim of pseudoscience is adjudged newsworthy.

-- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

I wrote this node in response to what I thought was a rather sloppy criticism of CSICOP by Cimmerian. CSICOP is certainly not above criticism. However, I felt Cimmerian's node was both misleading, poorly reasoned, and lacking facts and examples to support his criticism. That the node quickly vanished might be testament to its sloppy construction. With his node gone, this node is kind of pantless and leaving my wet flappy bits dangling out in the wind. The node is seriously in need of a "history of" so re-write time. However, I've retained my response at the end. Cimmerian raised a lot of common and misleading criticism regarding the group (e.g., "this 'scientific' group has a lot of non-scientists as members!"), which should be addressed anyway in a node about CSICOP.

CSICOP (Committee For The Scientific Investigation Of the Paranormal) is a non-profit educational organization that attempts to counter balance the flood of irrational ideas that make their way into the public consciousness, typically via media run by people with a poor understanding of science.

CSICOP was founded in 1976 by Dr. Paul Kurtz of the State University of New York at Buffalo. Some of the original founding members include the late Carl Sagan, the late Isaac Asimov, Philip Klass, Ray Hyman, James Randi, and Martin Gardner.

The organization grew out of Kurtz's own work as the editor of The Humanist magazine. Kurtz wrote a skeptical article about astrology which got picked up by some major media organizations. Much of the feedback from the public and media was negative. The response was so negative and so shockingly anti-science that a group of 186 scientist signed their names in support of Kurtz's "Objections to Astrology".

At a follow-on humanist conference, Kurtz suggested forming a group to critique a wide range of paranormal claims and the formation of a journal. Prior to CSICOP one of the largest skeptical groups was called Resources for the Scientific Evaluation of the Paranormal (RSEP) which was founded by Martin Gardner, Ray Hyman, James Randi, and Marcello Truzzi. All the members were either professional magicians or amateur magicians. Like Houdini before them, they were all disturbed by people passing off the techniques of stage magic and sleight of hand as paranormal powers.

The RSEP magicians disbanded their organization and folded it into the fledgling CSICOP. RSEP's journal, The Zetetic, became CSICOP's journal. It retained RSEP's Marcello Truzzi as editor as well as the name. (Truzzi is widely credited for coining the skeptic maxim "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.") Truzzi left after a few issues and it was renamed the Skeptical Inquirer.

Curiously after CSICOP's formation, the media again picked up on Kurtz's latest rumblings. And the media got it exactly wrong. They gleefully reported that a group of eminent scientists were coming together to prove the factual basis of paranormal claims.


Original:

First off, the name CSICOP (Committee For The Scientific Investigation Of the Paranormal) is a misnomer, because the Committee does not actually do any scientific research.

This is a misunderstanding of the group's mission. It does not exist to do research. Is a skeptical group supposed to do research on things like ESP and UFOs? The role of the skeptic is not to establish phenomenon or prove a negative ("I'm going to prove there are no invisible blue fairies!"). The role of a CSICOP and skeptics in general is to watch dog that beliefs are not formed based on poor evidence and reasoning. Beliefs should have a rational basis and sufficient evidence.

If you claim to have a paranormal ability and you would like to establish your claim, that's where CSICOP can help. As an organization, it can bring to bear some of the greatest scientific minds to look at your claims, suggest experimental protocols, and even test your claims.

Often, the "explanations" given by the members of CSICOP are even less rational than the claim itself (which they do not bother to actually research, of course), and have no evidence whatsoever.

I'll set aside for a moment Cimmerian provides no actual examples where CSICOP has provided alternative claims that are less rational. Ultimately, it's not the role of the skeptic to provide counter proof. The role of the skeptic is to offer other possible things to consider and control for. The person trying to establish the claim is then free to offer arguments as to why other possible, prosaic explanations should be eliminated. The "placebo effect", for example, is a very poorly understood effect. However, any trial of a new medicine must control for the placebo effect.

A common tactic of CSICOP is to find a possible mainstream explanation for part of a phenomenon, ignore the rest, and claim that "the mystery has been solved".

Now I'm really curious as to cases where CSICOP has done this. Googling for "csicop" and "the mystery has been solved" I can find only one such case where a CSICOP writer has coupled a "mainstream" explanation with the claim "the mystery has been solved". Cimmerian seems to demand exacting scholarship on the part of CSICOP but does not seem to provide it himself.

It is not uncommon for them to ignore mentioning the scientific credentials of the people that they criticize, and to mention possible (but generally nonexistant) "flaws" in the experiments of their rivals.

Again some examples where CSICOP has purposefully omitted relevant scientific credentials would be helpful. William Shockley, a Nobel prize winner, was pretty impressive within his field of transistor physics, but when he went out of his field and started promoting eugenics, did it matter to anyone he had a degree in physics?

As well, some examples where CSICOP has found non-existent flaws in experiments would help.

they promote the end of science, the idea that all can be found by science has been found

I'm not sure I've ever read anyone with CSICOP making that claim. They are people in love with science and in love with all there is yet to discover. They just don't like people trying to sidetrack legitimate research and funding by letting people with poorly established beliefs jump the queue.

Furthermore, many of the members of CSICOP (such as James Randi, Paul Kurtz, and Martin Gardner) are NOT scientists

This is the funniest one (and 33.3% inaccurate as Randi is not a current member of CSICOP). First, we could say the exact opposite and make a sentence that is entirely true. "Many members of CSICOP (such as Murray Gell-Mann, James E. Alcock , Marcia Angell, F. H. C. Crick , Elizabeth Loftus, John Maddox, Douglas Hofstadter, Philip J. Klass, Marvin Minsky) are MINDBLOWINGLY GREAT SCIENTISTS." I dunno. These aren't stupid people. They don't strike me as closed minded individuals who think of science as a religion and fear new ideas. There's a canard that skeptics are all closed minded and lack imagination. Isaac Asimov was a founding member of CSICOP and I'm not sure anyone could accuse him of lacking imagination and an open mind. This was a man in love with far out ideas. But did he believe psychic powers were real because his Second Foundationers were psychics? Would he have accepted any "evidence" shit out by a TV news crew? Natch.

If CSICOP was such a bogus organization with such a shocking track record for closed mindedness and poor scholarship, it's highly doubtful they would have lent their name for all these years.

Yep. They got some stage magicians too. Why? Well, when you investigate some claims of the paranormal you have to control for people trying to pass off stage magic trick as psychic phenomenon. They've got some philosophers and lowly un-credentialed science writers too. Why? CSICOP is primarily an educational organization, trying to educate the public and media not to swallow paranormal claims without applying a rational, skeptical mind.

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