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This Kurtz quote also resembles arguments I’ve continued to advance since 2007 (especially in a hefty unpublished piece) that the skeptical movement is not a rationalist revolution, but merely the useful ongoing work of pursuing scholarship in otherwise neglected fringe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
- 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)
- Loxton, Daniel. “Where Do We Go From Here?” (Skeptics Society, 2007.) http://www.skeptic.com/downloads/WhereDoWeGoFromHere.pdf
- Kurtz, Paul. “Skeptic’s Burnout: Hard Weeks on the Astrology Battle Line.” Skeptical Inquirer, Vol 13, No 1. Fall 1988. p. 6
- 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
- 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.)
- This phrase is a recurring theme in Battlestar Galactica (2004–2009). The series is set in an eternal return universe.