From the archives: a 1987 interview with CSICOP chairman Paul Kurtz – part one Wendy M. Grossman The Skeptic

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 2, Issue 2, from 1988.

Paul Kurtz was chairman of the Buffalo, NY-based Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), editor of the humanist magazine Free Inquiry, President and editor-in-chief of Prometheus Books, and a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He was author of 27 books, the most recent of which is The Transcendental Temptation. Paul Kurtz died in October 2012.

Founder of The Skeptic, Wendy Grossman, interviewed him at his home on September 21st 1987.

Wendy Grossman: It seemed to me that the three general areas that would be of most interest in Britain and Ireland would be, first of all, the connections you have to Britain and Ireland – the organizations you’re involved with – and second of all, the kinds of things you would like to see the British & Irish skeptics accomplish, and third of all, particularly in Ireland, the relationship that you see between skepticism and humanism. In Ireland that’s very much an issue. It even came up at Mark Plummer’s public meeting – what is your attitude toward God, what do you think about religious miracles. And what we said was, anything that can be investigated now is fair game. But still, I think it would very interesting to hear you talk about it.

Paul Kurtz: Well, my interest in the British Isles is longstanding, and particularly having been a young GI in the Second World War and having served in the US Army and being based north of London. I don’t remember now exactly where – the Midlands – during the war. And I used to go to London every weekend I could. And so that went on for several months before we went over to the Continent – I was shipped there during the Ardennes battle. And then, I’ve always remembered how much Hyde Park influenced me, because I wandered into Hyde Park and I couldn’t get over the fact that here were these people standing on soap boxes and in particular there were pacifists who were arguing that they should not oppose the Nazis. And I went from place to place. You had communists, socialists, anarchists, reactionaries, every point of view expressed, and that sense of freedom of speech and commitment to democracy at that time enormously impressed me. But I’ve been back to Britain practically every other year since, although there was a hiatus after the war. I have always worked closely with British colleagues, because I think that Britain is vital in the intellectual world, in science and philosophy and the arts and literature, and has a very important role in influencing American thought and conduct. And I’ve been to all the far reaches of the empire, from Canada to South Africa to Australia to India and have always been impressed by the impact of the British on the world. Now, I’ve not really had the same close affinity with Ireland. I’ve never been to Ireland, actually.

WG: Well, we’ll have to change that. I’m always amazed because Britain is so small, and yet it’s affected the entire world.

PK: Astounding, the impact. When I grew up as a young man, they said, the sun never set on the Empire, and the Colonial Empire was really quite a sight to see. And who would have imagined that a few short years after the war that would totally disappear — that’s quite a change, from Britain at the center to Britain returning home, more insulated and insular. But my relation to Britain is ever since, because I’ve been Vice-President of the Rationalist Press Association. and I’ve been member of the British Humanist Association, and the National Secular Society. And then we’ve got a publishing arrangement between Pemberton Books and the Rationalist Press Association and Prometheus. They import our books and we import theirs. Over the years we’ve co-published many books. The key point is that in psychical research the British are vital – the Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882, and the intense interest of British scholars in the whole area of psychical phenomena is fundamental. And then I’ve been so influenced by British philosophy, particularly by the empiricists that I feel that Britain is my second land. Locke. Bacon. Berkeley. Hume. John Stuart Mill was a commanding influence on my thought. Bertrand Russell, down to the present, so that we are truly intellectual, cultural colleagues, British and Americans. And that’s why I think it’s terribly important that the skeptical critique keep alive in Britain. In fact, that’s where I got my skepticism. My skepticism comes largely from Scotland, from David Hume, who was the greatest of the Scottish philosophers, the influence of Hume, and the Irishman Bishop Berkeley, too, who was a great philosopher in the 18th century. So that impact, and particularly the impact of David Hume – if you cannot find evidence or observations to support a hypothesis then you ought not to accept it. So I became committed to an empiricist or experimental program of testing knowledge.

WG: Sounds like Conan Doyle, too – he was Scottish as well.

PK: He said something similar?

WG: Well, Sherlock Holmes did – “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.

PK: Yes. but Conan Doyle was very naïve about the paranormal. He accepted practically everything uncritically.

WG: It’s fascinating. because Holmes was so rational.

PK: Holmes was, yes. But not Doyle himself, who was very naive. He even believed in the Cottingley Fairies. the Fox Sisters…

WG: Maybe he had a weakness for young girls.

PK: Maybe. That’s a good point. Yes, maybe. When the Fox Sisters were claimed to be frauds because they were cracking their knuckles on the wooden floor, he said these may have been ectoplasmic rods coming out of their knuckles.

WG: I had an interesting conversation with Leslie Shepard – it was about the Cottingley Fairies women, one of them had said yes, the pictures were frauds, but they really did see fairies.

PK: I see.

WG: And he said, well, you know, that’s a very interesting statement, and I said, Yes.

PK: How do you corroborate that, verify it? That’s the whole problem. CSICOP is interested in objective inquiry, it wants to be fair-minded, open-minded, it wants to submit any claims to testing, it doesn’t want to foreclose investigation, it doesn’t want to be dogmatic, it doesn’t want to turn skepticism into an ‘ism’ in the worst sense. That’s why it’s terribly important that the Americans keep in close ally with the British, and therefore, the kind of debate between British and Irish skeptics and scientists with American skeptics and scientists is very crucial, and we must constantly leave the door open. That’s why we welcomed the British & Irish newsletter that you’ve created, and the British & Irish committees. They’re fundamental to this dialogue. It’s interesting looking at the history of psychical research. I teach a course in philosophy in the paranormal and parapsychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, in which I review the history of psychical research and spiritualism, and also the work of that famous society [the Society for Psychical Research] and of course its proceedings have always intrigued me, going back to the work of F.W.H. Myers. Edmund Gurney, Hogson, the Sidgwicks. and others, and their early efforts to test thought transmission, spirit communication and survival of the dead. It’s a very fascinating history, and I think that those connected with CSICOP have a lot to learn by reading that rich literature. I’ve spent many months going through as much as I could of the Proceedings of the British Society for Psychical Research. We’re all indebted to their early efforts and to many of the blind alleys they went down. You see their great enthusiasms and failures. But nonetheless I think the efforts of that heroic band of researchers to submit the paranormal to experimental inquiry are a very important contribution to knowledge and we’re all grateful. The fact that they, in my view, have not achieved hard results, and that what they hoped they would find has not been confirmed doesn’t any the less mean that the quest of the investigation was not intriguing, fascinating, and exciting, and I can go back and read that material. and it’s really exciting to do so.

WG: One thing I’ve noticed, following some of the spiritualist mediums a little bit is that many of the spiritualist meetings are still held in churches in Britain.

PK: Oh, really? Are they still strong?

WG: I have never personally been to one. One of our subscribers. Gerald Fleming, goes around to quite a few of these meetings. He went to Doris Stokes’ meetings when she was playing in little, tiny churches. And he says many of them are held in churches. There seems to be a strong connection. Many of the psychics say they believe in God – Geller now goes on television and he talks all the time: “I believe in God,” “I take care of my spiritual side,” “I am a happy person,” and in his book The Geller Effect, he seemed to be suggesting that the skeptics were atheists and maybe Marxists, and perhaps very dangerous characters.

PK: Well, of course. I think those charges are very unfair ad hominem attacks, because whatever one’s religious beliefs are is quite irrelevant to the effort of science to test these claims in a neutral and objective way. The charge of Marxism is, of course, a complete red herring. And in any case, whether one is a believer or a non-believer in religion is not pertinent to whether or not you can confirm precognition or psychokinesis or anything else.

WG: Or whether Uri Geller can bend a spoon.

PK: Yes. that’s all quite independent.

WG: There seems to be an implication, though. Perhaps they think the audience will like them better or believe them more if they say that they believe in God.

PK: But you can believe in God and not believe in psychokinesis or not believe in God and believe in psychokinesis. There’s really a testable hypothesis. So skepticism about the paranormal is not related to humanism or atheism. Skepticism is an honorable and noble intellectual posture, and it’s held by a lot of people historically. It’s a method of inquiry. All that it’s emphasizing is being tough-minded instead of tender-minded in whatever field you investigate. And in regard to the paranormal, it’s simply a demand for evidence and replication before a hypothesis is accepted, and that seems very sensible. So whether one is an atheist, an agnostic, or a skeptic is non sequitur.

WG: I think personalities come into it a great deal, too. People are testing individual subjects, and they want to like them, they want them to succeed.

PK: Personalities come into every field of investigation, no matter what it is, if you’re a chemist in a laboratory, or a physicist or an economist, or a parapsychologist. But here of course the testing is with human subjects, that’s true, but many other sciences test human subjects, in medicine, in biology, in psychology.

WG: But you’re not quite so dependent on their telling you the truth and behaving honourably?

PK: Well. I think in a lot of fields you’re dealing with human beings, I mean, what is political science about if not human beings, the context of power, making decisions in the state: economics is about wants, consumption, exchange, distribution. and the processes of production are all human. So in all the social, psychological, behavioral sciences human beings are involved. It’s not unique to parapsychology. Surely psychologists are dealing with the same phenomena — namely, human subjects and their psychological dispositions, attitudes, beliefs, so I don’t find anything specially separate or distinct about this. You still have to submit it to objective tests in the laboratory, overcoming purely subjective or introspective reports unless you can corroborate or confirm them.

WG: I just read Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, where he talks about apparently objective scientific measurements. Somebody has to interpret them, and when they were interpreted, the interpretation coming from a racial bias.

PK: Well, it’s true, bias enters into many fields. Look at the Piltdown Man. Look at Burt’s work in IQ, Kammerer’s work on the toad. You sometimes have bias in fields, and there may be subjective interpretation, but presumably science must rise above bias and neutralize it. And you try to develop principles of interpretation that your peer group within the science world will accept.

WG: Would you say that in the long run the scientific method triumphs? That as time goes on, an incorrect result gets modified simply by the force of…

PK: Not always, because scientists, after all. are human beings. But one would hope that there is this self-corrective process, and that by peer criticism eventually hypotheses or theories that are not sustained by the evidence or are less powerful in prediction or explanation are overthrown. That’s a constant process of modification. But the trouble in parapsychology, the reason we’re skeptics about parapsychology is that the so-called claims are never sustained under analysis. You go into one laboratory and you hear a parapsychologist who says he’s been able to get above-chance calls, but you take the subjects to another laboratory, and you don’t find that. You can’t duplicate the results. Often, when you analyze it, there’s sensory leakage, bad experimental design, the statistics may or may not be called into question. In any case. the main thing is you cannot replicate it, so that’s why we are skeptical. That’s why many skeptics do not necessarily believe that ESP has been demonstrated in a laboratory. Of course if that’s the case, I think the most important single case since the Second World War is the work of S.G. Soal. It was conducted in London at the height of the war and shortly thereafter. It was fascinating on this side of the Atlantic to read about it – this was precognition and telepathy confirmed. But Soal couldn’t get any results in the thirties when he used Rhine’s methods. The view was that maybe Britons don’t have ESP, but then with Gloria Stewart and Basil Shackleton, Soal thought he had confirmed it. This convinced an awful lot of people who thought, oh, yes, at long last, rigorous conditions, using highly credible and distinguished scientists as observers, Soal at last had proven this. But what a shock it was to find that he had fudged the random-number tables that he brought, and most likely this work was seriously flawed and had to be rejected. So where we stand is we’re still not certain that precognition, telepathy or psychokinesis or ESP has been confirmed in a laboratory. Even though there are always impending breakthroughs, under scrutiny what was thought to be a breakthrough is not sustained by the evidence. so that’s why we’re skeptics. I think that Susan Blackmore’s book, The Adventures of a Parapsychologist best illustrates the false starts and blind alleys, and the failures that so many people have had in these areas.

WG: And great dedication as well.

PK: Great dedication to find results, but not able to do so.

WG: Perhaps she was too honest?

PK: Well. she was, she had an open mind, and she tried. She never got results. She attempted over and over again.

In Part Two, next week, Paul Kurtz discusses the role of imagination, and the Gauquelins, and the “Mars Effect”.

The post From the archives: a 1987 interview with CSICOP chairman Paul Kurtz – part one appeared first on The Skeptic.

From the archives in 1988, Wendy Grossman interviews CSICON chair and leading American skeptic, Paul Kurtz.
The post From the archives: a 1987 interview with CSICOP chairman Paul Kurtz – part one appeared first on The Skeptic.