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Echoing the Past

by Daniel Loxton, Sep 05 2012

Daniel Loxton poses with Paul Kurtz at The Amazing Meeting 8 conference

Daniel Loxton poses with Paul Kurtz at The Amazing Meeting 8 conference

In my previous post, I quoted from a 1988 Skeptical Inquirer article written by philosopher Paul Kurtz, a founder of the first successful North American skeptics group (the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, or CSICOP—now called CSI). There’s nothing I find more inspiring than rediscovering the older skeptical literature. Copies of the journal-format Skeptical Inquirer of the 1970s-80s are especially valuable for historical perspective. (I have most of these in my research library, but also now benefit from the very affordable and searchable DVD collection.)

Reading that 1988 Kurtz article, a passage leapt out at me for its similarity to something I wrote 19 years later. First, here are some lines from the end of my 2007 manifesto essay “Where Do We Go From Here?” (PDF) (a manifesto written partly in response to arguments Paul Kurtz was then making about widening the scope of skepticism away from our traditional mandate of critical, science-based evaluation of paranormal claims.1 I argued that we should instead re-focus on testable paranormal and pseudoscientific claims, despite the exhaustion skeptics sometimes feel at the endlessness of that task):

Paranormal scams will continue to happen, while evidence-based reasoning frequently won’t. Media sources will continue to exploit our fears and hopes, and some people will continue to mislead others for money and power. … We can’t win any ultimate victory over superstition or ignorance, but we can do a lot of good if we fight hard enough. … Burnout is a problem…our heroes—folks who’ve been hammering the same damn Whack-a-Moles for decades—face every day. … If skepticism is a Sisyphean task, then we will always need more people who are enthusiastic about rolling rocks.2

Now, here is that passage that Paul Kurtz wrote two decades earlier:

Do we ever get “skeptic’s burnout”? Well, we do feel somewhat like Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill—and as soon as it gets near the top it rolls back down and we have to start all over again. But what if CSICOP did not exist? Imagine a situation in which there was no critical dissent at all. Psychics, astrologers, soothsayers, and gurus would no doubt cheer and make the most of it. Burnout or not, we still have work to do. I am convinced that paranormal belief systems are the expression of deep-felt needs of the human psyche and that that is why they persist. Nevertheless, it is necessary to provide a critical alternative so that those who are interested in the scientific case can have the facts.3

This Kurtz quote also resembles arguments I’ve continued to advance since 2007 (especially in a hefty unpublished piece) that the skeptical movement is not a rationalist revolution, but merely the useful ongoing work of pursuing scholarship in otherwise neglected fringe topics and then making that scholarship available to anyone who wishes to make use of it.

I don’t mean to position this similarity as any sort of “gotcha.” A lifetime of ideas is a complex, evolving thing. People who follow Kurtz’s work (he’s among my heroes) already know that he became less interested in paranormal claims later in his career, and more interested in attempting to create a unified rationalist movement.4 It’s not a surprise to me that the Kurtz of the 1970s and 1980s advanced views closer to my own views today; indeed, it’s a theme of my career that pioneers like Kurtz had it right in the first place. I’m a creature of the CSICOP tradition. My views were shaped by that older work, and the scientific skepticism that I promote reflects that.

Nor am I surprised by our shared Sisyphus comparison. The skeptical literature is full of analogies and similes along those lines for the very simple reason that they’re relevant. The paranormal is not going away, any more than disease or theft or garbage (or art or love or friendship). It’s part of who we are as humans. Working to understand paranormal beliefs and share that understanding with the public is a task that will never be complete. The road goes ever on.

It’s just that this quote from Kurtz snaps my attention to the depth and cycles of skeptical history. We’ve been at this stuff a long time—indeed, since classical antiquity.5 Human nature continues. Scams continue, and debunking too. People remain fascinated by tales of mystery; the need to solve those mysteries remains. Through it all, skeptics face the same challenges, the same diffusing pressures, the same debates and arguments and dissenting opinions. It all just repeats.

I framed my original back-to-basics manifesto with quotes drawn (just for fun) from Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel supernatural-adventure television series. Seeing this Kurtz passage puts me in mind of a line from another popular speculative fiction show, a show about perseverance against impossible odds:

“All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.”6

References:

  1. See for example Kurtz, Paul. “New Directions for Skeptical Inquiry.” Csicop.org. December 4, 2006 http://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/new_directions_for_skeptical_inquiry/ (Accessed September 5, 2012)
  2. Loxton, Daniel. “Where Do We Go From Here?” (Skeptics Society, 2007.) http://www.skeptic.com/downloads/WhereDoWeGoFromHere.pdf
  3. Kurtz, Paul. “Skeptic’s Burnout: Hard Weeks on the Astrology Battle Line.” Skeptical Inquirer, Vol 13, No 1. Fall 1988. p. 6
  4. This was the Kurtz-led creation of the Center For Inquiry (CFI) umbrella for the previously carefully segregated Council for Secular Humanism and CSICOP. Arguably the formation of the CFI—opposed at the time by scientific skeptics in the CSICOP fold—began a trend to conflation between skepticism and atheism. This trend was strongly reinforced by the post-9/11 popularity of the New Atheist movement. In my opinion, that trend may now be correcting. For more on the resistance of CSICOP skeptics to the creation of the CFI, see for example Beyerstein, Barry. “A CFI for Vancouver.” Rational Enquirer, March 2007. pp. 14–15
  5. See for example the efforts of Lucian of Samosata to debunk fraudulent “oracle-monger” Alexander of Abonoteichus—an “arch-scoundrel” in the opinion of Lucian, “whose deserts entitled him not to be read about by the cultivated, but to be torn to pieces in the amphitheatre by apes or foxes, with a vast audience looking on.” See Lucian of Samosata. H.G Fowler and F.G. Fowler, trans. The Works of Lucian of Samosata. Vol. II. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905). 212–213. (Transcription available online here.)
  6. This phrase is a recurring theme in Battlestar Galactica (2004–2009). The series is set in an eternal return universe.

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12 Responses to “Echoing the Past”

  1. badrescher says:

    “This Kurtz quote also resembles arguments I’ve continued to advance since 2007 (especially in a hefty unpublished piece) that the skeptical movement is not a rationalist revolution, but merely the useful ongoing work of pursuing scholarship in otherwise neglected fringe topics and then making that scholarship available to anyone who wishes to make use of it.”

    I don’t think that it is either of these. I think it’s somewhere in between, but I understand your point.

    It’s a shame that so many are disappointed when they realize that skepticism is not a “revolution”. Disillusionment in the movement is inevitable, but blaming the movement itself is misguided. The illusion is that an overnight “rational revolution” is possible or even best.

  2. Jason Loxton says:

    Good point, Dan. Skepticism, as a method, is exactly what I would assume from one of my colleagues in geology, and what, I assume, anyone in any other academic discipline would assume from their colleagues. The difference, I think, is that we (skeptics) drop the ball a lot more than do academics (largely because there’s no peer review/editorial process before hitting ‘reply’ on blog posts, a very different standard of tone, no credentialing process, no requirement to cite past literature when making an argument, and very little in terms of consequence for violating principles of fair and rational argument).

    • Another Point of view says:

      I do not believe that either credentials or prior literature makes something true. The logic that is used is what makes an argument worth while.
      As far as continuing to use scientific methods to repeatedly argue against ghosts or other paranormal things is a waste of time and energy. Let those who make the claims prove what they say, if they can’t then anyone foolish enough to believe them deserves the consequences.
      The wasted time can be used much better teaching logic and methods of proof. Attacking real world problems and trying to find the truth of opposing viewpoints in a rational manner is a much better use of rational minds.

  3. Chris Howard says:

    That picture is so cool. I always wanted to meet him, and Joseph Campbell. Great article, too.

  4. Joshua Hunt says:

    Great post, Daniel! I’m glad to see you writing again for Skepticblog. I look forward to more pieces from you, and your next book.

    Keep up the great work!

  5. Insightful Ape says:

    I have no doubt that Paul Kurtz was a significant figure among the skeptic movement. But those days are over. Now he is an accommodationist more concerned about the “excesses” of New Atheism.
    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/05/25/what-ever-happened-to-paul-kur/

    • At this point, even New Atheists are concerned about the excesses of New Atheism. But Paul Kurtz’s opinions about the atheist movement have little bearing upon his influence in the separate skeptics movement. In scientific skepticism, Kurtz’s influence will continue to be strong for decades, both because of the continuing prominence of the institutions he spearheaded (CSICOP, the Skeptical Inquirer) and because he hired, trained, or influenced so many working skeptics.

      In secular humanism, of course, his influence is stronger still.

  6. badrescher says:

    What Daniel said, plus… Whether Kurtz himself is considered influential in the *any* movement today is not particularly relevant. It is, however, relevant that he played a significant part in laying its foundation. Even ‘new atheism’ owes part of its success to Kurtz.

    Rehashing old arguments in hopes that they will end differently is fine as long as one is familiar enough with those arguments to make a new or better case. Rehashing old arguments out of ignorance is a bit wasteful and distracting. It is unavoidable, but it would be nice if we could minimize it.

  7. Insightful Ape says:

    I strongly disagree that New Atheists owe Kurtz anything. Kurtz had his way for decades, and he had absolutely zero impact on public recognition of atheism/skepticism. The New Atheist movement started only in 2004 and look how far we have come: self identified atheists now make up 5% of the population and those identifying themselves as religious are at an all time low of 60%. Skepticism without atheism is not skepticism; a true skeptic cannot leave religion off limits.
    Plus don’t tell me that New Atheists think they have gone too far or they agree with Kurtz-style accomodationism. If you want to know what they think of him, look at this:
    http://articles.latimes.com/2010/oct/10/local/la-me-humanists-20101010

  8. Blake Smith says:

    People who do not study history are doomed to make stupid remarks on the Internet.