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Sunday, February 11, 2007

SKEPTICAL INQUIRER: Don't Believe Everything You Read

Always ready to throw a pail of cold water on the public's―and the mass media's―pet beliefs, the Skeptical Inquirer is into its 31st year and going strong. The bimonthly is published by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a loose organization of science types based in Amherst, New York, close by the University of Buffalo.

The organization recently changed its name, and therein lies a tale.

Until last fall, it was the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, CSICOP for short. Editor Kendrick Frazier devotes a long editorial in the new January-February issue to the reasons for the change, which have a bit to do with publicity but also with a subtle reorientation of the Committee and its publication.

Back in the mid 1970s when CSICOP was started, psychics, astrologers, faith healers and UFOlogists were getting a lot of attention. Frazier writes that "our original core focus on the 'paranormal' was partly because that was where a lot of misinformation and intentional disinformation existed. Also, paranormal topics had broad appeal to the public and the media, and the scientific community was basically ignoring them, allowing promoters of the paranormal to go unchallenged."

But the organization's main mission, as it sees it now―to promote the application of rational thought to public discourse―was being hindered by its awkward moniker. Scientists were reluctant to have anything to do with an organization with "paranormal" in its name, even if that organization was dedicated to its debunking. And, as Frazier points out, respectable publications see the need to spell out an organization's full name at least once in any article, and who has space (and patient readers) for a name that long?

It's interesting to note that this past weekend Princeton University announced the closing of its laboratory devoted to the study of extrasensory perception and telekinesis since 1978. The development is apparently being greeted with relief by scientists at the university. It looks like the paranormal is fading from public consciousness.

There's a little bit of the good old stuff in this issue, such as a roundup and pooh-poohing of Sasquatch and Cadborosaurus sightings. The latter is a Loch Ness-type sea serpent supposedly spotted at various times since 1933 in Cadboro Bay, on the southeast coast of British Columbia's Victoria Island.

But the new meat-and-potatoes for the Skeptical Inquirer is investigating phenomena that the mass media swallow and regurgitate without even a burp of indigestion. An example is the belief that those who worked and lived in the dust of the collapsed World Trade Center suffer from a variety of serious respiratory and other illnesses.

Michael Fumento writes that the origin of the story, a report from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has a faulty premise: it is based on health statistics from people who came forward voluntarily to have their health checked, not on a random sample. He argues that such people come forward because they're worried about their health, and thus are more likely to exhibit symptoms based on stress-caused psychogenic illness.

A major modern enemy of rational thinking, according to the Skeptical Inquirer, is "intelligent design," the theory of creationism that denies evolution. It's a core belief of many millions of Americans, and is becoming an ideological battleground in school districts around the country. This issue features a long report from one such conflict in Dover, Pennsylvania.

The cover story is an interesting appreciation of the life of Carl Sagan, one of the founders of CSICOP. It's been ten years since the vastly popular scientist died, and colleague David Morrison recounts his successes in science and in the media. Sagan was the guest of television talk show host Johnny Carson show 26 times. He called The Tonight Show "the biggest classroom in history."

I was surprised to read that Sagan had been in a bit of an eclipse during the 1990s, caused in part by the near-stoppage in the NASA space program after the 1986 Challenger accident. Morrison writes that the main problem was Sagan's scientific blunder in 1990, when he predicted that the threatened burning of the Kuwaiti oil fields by Iraq could cause a mini "nuclear winter" in the region and possibly on a worldwide scale. The oil fields burned with no discernable effect on the weather anywhere.

Massimo Polidoro, head of an Italian skeptics organization, writes a witty column about "The Devious Art of Improvising." Imagine you're on Barbara Walter's television show and you foolishly tell her that you can reproduce a drawing never seen by you that lies concealed in an envelope on her desk. . .

An annual subscription to the Skeptical Inquirer (six issues) is $35.00 from the publisher. We'll send you a sample copy for $2.59.

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