by Bob Ladendorf
More than 1,000 critical thinkers from around the world gathered for the first World Skeptics Congress in Buffalo, New York, last month to listen to speakers ranging from Stephen Jay Gould to Chris Carter, producer of The X-Files, attend panel discussions on various topics, and be updated on the status of paranormal/pseudoscientific activities worldwide.
Sponsored by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and held at the University of New York at Buffalo and the Center for Inquiry, the Congress was held over a four-day period, June 20-23, with the theme of Science in the Age of (Mis) Information. The Congress, held during the 20th anniversary of the formation of CSICOP, was highlighted by a special awards ceremony on the 22nd featuring humanist/humorist Steve Allen, who also played the piano.
At the awards ceremony, it was announced that an asteroid was being named for CSICOP to honor its efforts to encourage rational, scientific inquiry. Because the astronomical group responsible for the naming of astronomical bodies indicated that CSICOP was not pronounceable, the asteroid would be named Skeptic on July 1.
It also was announced that another asteroid would be named for Paul Kurtz, CSICOPs founder and chairman. That announcement prompted banter between Kurtz and James Randi, conjurer and author who also has an asteroid named after him, as to who had the larger asteroid!
At the start of the Congress, CSICOP announced the formation of a new Council for Media Integrity to monitor and respond to media stories and programs promoting paranormal and pseudoscientific phenomena. In announcing the formation of the Council, Kurtz said, The media have now virtually replaced the schools, colleges, and universities as the main source of information for the general public .... the irresponsibility of the media in the area of science and the paranormal is a worldwide problem. But it especially applies to the United States, where the media have been distorting science, and in particular presenting pseudoscience as genuine science. Indeed, we are appalled by the number of documentaries. which are really entertainment programs, presenting fringe science as real science.
The major networks have been running two or three such specials almost every month. Recently there have been programs on prophecies, astrology, psychic powers, creationism, Noahs Ark, angels, alien abductions, etc. This is in addition to the popular Unsolved Mysteries, X-Files, and Sightings, as well as new programs such as Paranormal Borderlands, and Poltergeist.
Members of the Coordinating Committee for the council include Kurtz, who also is the professor emeritus of philosophy, SUNY at Buffalo; Joe Nickell, author, University of Kentucky, and senior research fellow, CSICOP; Barry Karr, executive director, CSICOP; and William Evans, assistant professor of communications, Georgia State University. (See list of other members in box.)
The council complained about the lack of skeptical dissent on talk shows. A statement endorsed by council members maintained that, If the United States is to continue to provide leadership and compete in the global economy, then we need to raise the level of scientific literacy and understanding of the general public.
We are not, of course, asking that TV producers not run these shows or make a profit. We surely do not wish to censor the media. We only ask that they provide some balance and provide some appreciation of the scientific approach. The new Council will monitor such programs, and attempt to persuade producers, directors, writers and the general public to leave room for the appreciation of scientific methods of inquiry.
We realize that the media are being attacked from all sides, but we think that a plea for raising the level of understanding of science should be heard.
The council plans to respond to misinformation in the media through various media, including videos, e-mail and faxes.
While the Congress covered a range of subjects, from alien abductions to The X-Files, there were at least two recurring themes: encouragement of diplomacy in criticism of paranormal/pseudoscientific topics, and a criticism of post modernism beliefs that there is no objective knowledge.
In his keynote speech, paleontologist and CSICOP board member Stephen Jay Gould cautioned the audience to avoid dismissal of a scientists entire body of work if only a part of it is wrong. Through slides and engrossing discussions of errors in scientists work, such as Thayers wrong-headed animal camouflage in nature assertions, Gould pointed out that, nonetheless, various scientists provided either valuable observations or developed other confirmed ideas that may not have surfaced if ignored because of other errors. Gould seemed to be saying, dont throw the baby out with the bath water.
In reviewing the well-known CIA remote viewing experiments, CSICOP board member Ray Hyman countered Prof. Jessica Utts view that there is statistical significance to the existence of paranormal activity. (For a detailed discussion of the two reviewers conclusions, see the March/April 1996 issue of Skeptical Inquirer.) However, Hyman indicated that Utts is a serious researcher who should be heard and her work evaluated. This urging of fully reviewing the others position is another example of the avoidance of complete dismissal of ideas prevalent at the Congress.
In criticizing the post modernist assertions of a lack of objective knowledge, Kurtz told Congress participants in the opening ceremony that, We hear from all sides that the Enlightenment, which was committed to science, reason, and education as a key to human progress, is at an end. Some of the patron saints of post modernism, from Feyerabend to Derrida, even maintain that science is only one mythic narrative among others. Yet these critics fail to explain how and why science has succeeded in examining our understanding of the universe and how and why its technical applications work. Although they rail against science, would they willingly forego the use of antibiotics, stereophonic systems, or the computer screen, which they use to compose their writings attacking science? Speaking as a philosopher, I fear that the liberal arts curriculum and the kind of science education that we offer at the universities and colleges needs to be reformed.
Giving the conference address on the opening night of the Congress was Leon Lederman, emeritus director of Fermilab and Nobel Laureate in Physics. He indicated that an anti-science movement is in a waxing phase and that, quoting Winston Churchill, skeptics need to fight [against irrationalism] and never give up. Lederman emphasized the need for more scientific knowledge, that Scientific authority is there to be overthrown by young revolutionaries throwing logical bombs.
Among the range of subjects covered in his speech, Lederman was emphatic about the need for changes in science education. He said that the biology, chemistry, physics sequence in high school should be reversed, perhaps even integrated each year so that students would be taking Science 1, 2 and 3 instead of the current sequence.
The soft-spoken physicist, also known for his book The God Particle, was presented CSICOPs In Praise of Reason award for his work in science at the start of the speech.
Others honored for their work at the Awards Banquet on Saturday night included:
Earlier that day at the luncheon held in a large tent outside the Center for Inquiry headquarters, John Maddox, editor emeritus of Nature magazine, cautioned the audience of several hundred that the growth of antiscience thinking could adversely affect funding for science work. In addition, he commented that following the end of the cold war, activists do not have a cause to advance. He also encouraged the participants to talk more about religion and its impact, and to discusst it and other topics with rationality and civility.
Numerous sessions were held during the Congress, many of them concurrently. including UFOlogy, astrology, homeopathy, therapeutic touch, chiropractic, creation/evolution, mechanisms of self-deception, alternative health cures, philosophy and pseudoscience, psychoanalytical theory, critical thinking in education, spiritualism and the University of Buffalo expose, and the paranormal in China. (Editors Note: Additional articles about some of these sessions will appear in a future newsletter, and detailed discussions will be forthcoming in a future issue of Skeptical Inquirer.)
At the last session of the Congress featuring updates by world skeptics groups, Kurtz announced that the 2nd World Skeptics Congress would be in June 1998 in Heidelberg, Germany.
Glenn T. Seaborg, Nobel Prize winner, and Steve Allen, Honorary CoChairmen.
Others include: Phillip Adams; Prof. Susan J. Blackmore; Jim Bohannon; Kendrick Frazier, editor, Skeptical Inquirer; Martin Gardner; Prof. George Gerbner; Stephen Jay Gould; Prof. Paul R. Gross; Prof. Gerald Holton; Edwin C. Krupp; Prof. Norman Levitt; Lee Loevinger; Sir John Maddox, editor emeritus, Nature; John Allen Paulos, matematician and author; Gerald Piel; Wallace Sampson, MD; Amardeo Sarma; and Prof. Eugenie Scott. Other names being added.