When The Skeptic came of age: a 2011 reflection on the first 21 years of the magazine Wendy M. Grossman The Skeptic

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 22, Issue 1, from 2011.

In May 1987, the Irish press was filled with stories about the weeping statue in a north Dublin suburban home. A web site documenting the story now says there were others in Cork and the south of Dublin around the same time (Catholic Tradition, n.d.). In fact, the site comments, the 1980s generally were a good time for weeping Rosa Mystica statues, which were found not only in Ireland but in Belgium, Sri Lanka, the US, and Italy.

I was living in Dublin at the time, and The Skeptic was a few months old. The stories seemed dramatic and mysterious. Weeping statues!

By then, even though it was only a few months old, The Skeptic had some readers, who had begun sending in newspaper clippings. (This may seem quaint to younger readers, but at the time the Web hadn’t been invented yet, few outside universities had email, and I wasn’t one of them.) One of these was a snipped letter to The Daily Telegraph written by someone in the plaster trade. He explained the phenomenon thus: the plaster that statues are made of retains some water, and so plaster statues are sealed with a plastic coating. If you poke holes in the coating, water will ooze out. If you poke those holes at the eyes, the statue will seem to weep.

I loved this for many reasons. For one thing, it seemed to me to prove that The Skeptic was worth doing to try to help make sure stuff like this didn’t get lost. For another, the explanation had the same elements that appealed to me so much about the decades’ worth of murder mysteries I’d read: an apparently impossible situation and a plausible and natural explanation. For a third, you could test this explanation’s validity for yourself by buying a few cheap plaster statues and poking holes in them and seeing what happened.

That last point is the key element of what good sceptics do, or should do. Contrary to what most people, particularly in the UK, seem to think, scepticism isn’t about saying no to everything all the time. Instead, it means enquiry. What is the evidence for a particular claim? How can it be tested?

If it can’t be tested – if, in other words, the claim is what philosopher of science Karl Popper called an “unfalsifiable hypothesis” – there’s nothing for a sceptic to do, really. You are free to believe that a small, invisible, unmeasurable pink cloud occupies a permanent spot in the sky like a geostationary satellite and directs all human affairs, and if you do sceptics are unlikely to try to interfere because we’re talking about a matter of faith, for which there are no tests. But if you start claiming that the pink cloud is coming down to earth at night and making crop circles, that is a physical effect that can be examined, and a hypothesis can be formed about the cause and then tested.

A brief history

However, that doesn’t tell you anything about how The Skeptic was founded, except that I am the kind of person who is excited by unexpected, natural explanations. That personality trait made me receptive when Mark Plummer, then the executive director of the US-based Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, said to me, “Do you think you could start a newsletter over there?” This was in late 1986. I was living in Dublin, where I knew hardly anyone, and I had been reading CSICOP’s own publication, Skeptical Inquirer, for more than five years after running across first a live lecture/demonstration by magician and debunker James Randi and then a copy of Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus, by Martin Gardner. On a visit back to my former US home town, Ithaca, NY, I persuaded a friend to drive up to Buffalo to visit CSICOP. Once there, I asked Mark: “Is there anything I can do?” This was his answer.

Starting a newsletter didn’t really seem like much, but you never knew. And sometimes things work in non-obvious ways. If you ask people now, 22 years later, what The Skeptic has changed you won’t necessarily get an encouraging response. I paused while writing this to ask Guardian journalist and author Simon Hoggart what difference he thought The Skeptic had made. “Not much”, he said, or something like it. After all: the alternative ‘medicine’ market is booming in defiance of any scientific research; books, magazines, and TV shows promoting paranormal claims continue to proliferate; and the average person you meet at a party still always knows their star sign. On the other hand: there seem to be a lot more sceptics – and a lot more visible sceptics – all over the landscape, and when you’re a founder, that seems like a result.

One step at a time

In 1986, I remember practically throwing things at the television when, in a daytime discussion of spiritualism the only opposition to the medium’s claims was a Church of England minister who said that any spirit contacted by such a means was evil. Why wasn’t there a sceptic to question whether there were any spirits to begin with?

That doesn’t happen now (and not just because I don’t watch daytime television). Within a couple of years of The Skeptic’s founding, you wouldn’t see a TV show promoting paranormal claims without a sceptical viewpoint. That is, of course, still not an entirely satisfying state of affairs, because so often what happens is that you’re simply the token sceptic and the show is really about paranormal claimants and the wonders they perform. Sceptics who can be proactive and set the agenda are few and far between; a few years later along came Richard Wiseman, who is doing just that.

It feels, anyway, as though there’s a lot more scepticism and sceptics around in 2009 than there were in 1987. How much of a role The Skeptic has played in that can be debated by others. What has definitely become noticeable since 1987 is that that there are fashions in belief as there are in everything else. Certainly there are perennials that just don’t die – astrology being the most obvious case. UFOs continue to baffle sky-watchers, and today’s ‘alternative’ medicine is a panoply of remedies that have been around for 150 years and up. Ghosts, numerology, dowsing, graphology, all still with us. Still others – physical spirit manifestations, spirit photography – die off because technology has overtaken them. But others are just short-lived fads. Who now talks about biorhythms or crop circles, both much in the public consciousness in The Skeptic’s early years?

Crop circles had the rare distinction of being a native phenomenon. No one suggested a pink cloud was causing them, but there were some other theories that seemed just as unlikely: currents in the earth’s magnetic field (Colin Andrews), UFOs, whirlwinds (Terence Meaden). Watching the evolution of these theories as new phenomena made them even more unlikely was instructive. Terence Meaden, for example, had to adapt his whirlwind idea after crop circle formations were discovered in about 1990 that featured rectangular elements; the whirlwinds, he said, were intelligent plasma vortices. It was a fine example of a phenomenon that was to become rather familiar: the theory that is stretched mercilessly by adherents unable to accept that new developments had invalidated it.

Many, if not most, of the new and trendy beliefs in the UK over the past 21 years came from elsewhere, usually the US, although see also the influence of Feng Shui from the East.

Fads and fallacies

I will say that British sceptics often seem to me to overestimate the common sense of the British public as compared to the gullibility of Americans. In the early 1990s, for example, I was told categorically that British folks would never believe in alien abductions, then an emerging belief in the US. “We’re too sensible,” I was told. But five years later you were seeing abductees talk about their terrifying experiences on daytime talk shows here, which was to be followed, a few years later, by believers in angels.

Similarly, about four years ago when I tried to write a piece about the growth of creationism in the UK, the received wisdom held that creationism would never gain ground here – British people understood more about science, and anyway, evangelical Christianity didn’t have much of a hold. Cut to February 2009 and the headline on page 15 of the Daily Telegraph reads: “Half of UK population ‘believe in creationism’.”

But creationism is a perfect example of what a very small number of passionate sceptics can achieve. One of the reasons so many people thought that Britain was somehow insulated from creationism was that the subject made some noise in the late 1980s and then seemed to die off. What they didn’t know was that it didn’t die by itself; instead, the disappearance of creationism from the national consciousness was the result of a thought-out, diligent, and persistent attack on those promoting it by Michael Howgate, who founded a little (two-member) organisation he called APE: the Association for the Protection of Evolution. Howgate made a point of going along to creationist meetings and doing his best to ask awkward questions, point out errors of fact, correct quotations taken out of context, and embarrass the speakers until they stopped holding public meetings.

A sense of community

These days, the Internet has made it easy for like-minded people to find each other, but for much of The Skeptic’s lifetime so far it took a printed publication. Scepticism is a hard sell, to both supporters and outsiders. In the UK, people seem to see the word as negative and closed-minded instead of open-minded and enquiring. Sceptics are generally used to feeling – and being – isolated. And much of scepticism is not media-friendly: there is no story in saying that astrology is just a 2,000-year-old first attempt at understanding astronomy, or that the apparent success rate of ‘alternative’ therapies is generally due to a poor understanding of the principle that ‘the plural of anecdote is not data’.

In 1996, Wayne Spencer and Tony Youens got together and put a notice in The Skeptic looking for like-minded people to start a membership organisation. Their group, the Association for Skeptical Enquiry (ASKE), was founded in 1997, and represents Britain as a member of the European Council of Skeptical Organisations (ECSO). Similarly, Skeptics in the Pub was founded in my living room while stuffing magazines into envelopes one day in 1999, when Scott Campbell, new in London from Australia, said, “I was thinking of starting a pub meet.” My sole contribution was to say, “Sounds great. Go for it.” Skeptics in the Pub is now ten years old, attracts standing-room-only crowds every month, and is being copied in Leeds, Leicester, Birmingham, Edinburgh and, most recently, Liverpool.

The thing I am actually proudest of in fact is not my own contribution in starting The Skeptic. What I am proud of is that it has attracted so many persistent supporters who have worked far harder to keep it alive and make it prosper than I ever did myself: Chris French and his Goldsmiths students; Hilary Evans, who has contributed both illustrations from the Mary Evans Picture Library and his own writing for so many years; cartoonists Donald Rooum and Ted Pearce; Toby Howard and Steve Donnelly, who edited the magazine for eight years and did the brutally hard work of growing the subscriber base; Peter O’Hara, my partner in getting the magazine out when it was photocopied and posted by hand; Michael Hutchinson; and the many, many contributors of articles and other features to the magazine who are too numerous to list. It is not a great thing to start a newsletter, but it is a great thing 20 years later to see it still alive and not dependent on its founder for its survival. That is really the key, because for something to have real, longterm impact it must be a community effort.

As it turns out, like many phenomena, weeping statues can have more than one explanation – and more than one manifestation. Since then (and before) there have been many stories about statues weeping blood and oil, and, conversely, drinking milk. Soak a sponge in scented or coloured oil or water and stuff it in the empty head cavity of a plaster statue and poke a pair of those ever-useful holes, and the statue will weep oil or ‘blood’. A number of sceptics have by now built even cleverer models, because, really, what good is it being a sceptic in 2009 if you can’t improve on a medieval miracle?

The post When The Skeptic came of age: a 2011 reflection on the first 21 years of the magazine appeared first on The Skeptic.

From the archives in 2011, Wendy M Grossman, founding editor of The Skeptic, reflects on the first 21 years of the magazine’s life
The post When The Skeptic came of age: a 2011 reflection on the first 21 years of the magazine appeared first on The Skeptic.