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Rational Inquiry -Volume 6 Number 3

A Visit to CSICOP in Amherst

By Keith Taylor

Maybe it wasnít fair but we SDARI folks have long moaned and groaned that we were an orphan outfit out here on the edge of the country. The cry has been, "Whereís CISCOP when we need it?" All the time it has been there but "there" has been a long distance away. Moreover, itís been for a valid reason for being separated. SDARI has to be independent of CSICOP for several reasons. For example, while it hasnít happened to CSICOP or to any of its local, unaffiliated organizations, similar types of organizations have groups that have been taken over by folks antithetical to their aims. Then thereís always all the legal reasons, including the specter of lawsuits!

Still with the encouragement of CSICOP, but technically on our own, more than 100 groups similar to SDARI have sprung up both in our country and around the world. One of the oldest is Bela Scheiberís Rocky Mountain Skeptics. His group has been running for more than two decades and has more than two hundred members. It has been very active and has been one of the major forces confronting ideas such as therapeutic touch. On the other hand, Rob Beeston started a group in Des Moines, IA, in January. The Central Iowa Skeptics consists of about twenty members. They are mostly held together by email and Rob says that a turnout of ten is the best he can hope for. Still, they get publicity and a chance to air their views now and then. The mayor showed up at a Friday the 13th party and smashed mirrors, opened umbrellas, walked under a ladder, and otherwise ran the gauntlet.

Because things donít happen unless somebody makes them happen, some important areas of the country are left out. Chicago doesnít have a a skeptics group. Yet a hundred or so miles downstate a fireball is hard at work. David Bloomberg has a small but enthusiastic group, Rational Examination Association of Lincoln Land, in Springfield, IL. One hopes his enthusiasm will rub off on the big city on Lake Michigan. Large or small we are kindred in our quest of rational thought and the scientific method of determining facts.

Last April, leaders of all the skeptic groups, including one from Argentina and a couple from Canada, were invited to a two-day seminar on April 20th and 21st. The invitation came from the Center for Inquiry (CFI) in Amherst, NY. CFI is the home of CSICOP, the Council for Secular Humanism, Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS), and the American Rationalist-a new magazine which recently affiliated with the Center.

With the help of a modest donation from CFI and a matching one from SDARI, I made the trip to the city by Niagara Falls on your behalf. A quick glance at the Falls showed that it hadnít changed much in the 65 years since Iíd been there last.

To me CSICOP is most impressive. Money donated to CSICOP is money well spent. The long, rambling building houses offices for the organizations listed above. It has the worldís largest library devoted to matters relating to skepticism. Joe Nickell, Senior Research Fellow of CSICOP, showed us his "skeptiseum," a museum devoted to artifacts collected over the years. For more information on Nickellís museum check then scroll down to skeptiseum (sic).

Bela Schieber coordinated the meetings which ran all day the 20th and into the night. Then we were back for more on the morning of the 21st. Each leader had a chance to tout his own organization. I was proud to proclaim that SDARI has survived five years and weíve kept our noses above water throughout. I told them we have awarded prizes for two consecutive science fairs. We had a successful Friday the 13th party and gained some media attention. I was especially proud of the quality of speakers weíve attracted. In all respects SDARI ranks towards the top of the groups in membership, attendance, number of meetings and activities, and (I think) sagacity of its members.

The meetings covered the areas where we felt we needed help. For example, speakers! CSICOP is trying to coordinate tours and help us where we need it. Immediately after the meeting Jim Underdown, executive director at CFI, West, met with a few of us in San Diego to offer his help. Other things are happening too. Paul Kurtz will be here on September 7th to give a talk. And CSICOP will send free copies of Skeptical Briefs for distribution at our meetings. We will continue to send copies of our newsletter to them in return.

Another project is to bring Dr. Joe Nickell, Senior Research Fellow of SCICOP, out here for a talk. He is an entertaining speaker. If there is a documentary about haunted houses he is likely to be a guest. I had the pleasure of talking with Nickell at length. He wants to come to San Diego. I want him to come. And, best of all, since CSICOP would be sponsoring the trip, he wonít drain our treasury for transportation and/or fees. However, we must provide a good reason for him to visit. Perhaps we can compile a list of things of dubious fame in our area for him to investigate, write an article about, or maybe do a TV show about. Surely some among you can come up with ideas for Nickell. I would hope for enough interest to move his lecture to a different venue and charge admission.

Also at Amherst, Dave Bloomberg took the lead to institute an informal network for the various groups to exchange ideas. Amanda Chesworth of CSICOP is coordinating the plan.

All in all I came away impressed with the dedication of both CSICOP and the various groups scattered around the country. Still when allís said and done, the help of CSICOP is welcome and needed, but our effectiveness depends on us members out here in the hinterland.


Keith Taylor is the President of SDARI.

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