The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims for the Paranormal (CSICOP) was founded by Paul Kurtz and others in 1976, with the aim of combatting what its members regard as an increasing public acceptance of irrationality and superstition. Critics have not been slow to accuse them of prejudice and narrow-mindedness, but CSICOP has continued to campaign vigorously for its views and this book provides a useful summary of how it sees things today.
In spite of the title, not all the contributions are autobiographical; some are more analytical and describe the outcome of investigations in particular areas. There is also a section on the situation of skepticism in different countries outside the USA as well as one containing less readily classifiable pieces on the nature of skeptical thought. Quite a number of authors, however, do describe their own progress from belief to skepticism.
CSICOP seems always to have had a problem in defining its attitude to religion. Most of its members appear to be agnostic or atheist, but officially, at least, CSICOP claims to be neutral as regards religion though critical of testable religious claims in such matters as milk-drinking statues or the Shroud of Turin. However, this book does contain one explicitly atheistic article, by the philosopher Antony Flew. Martin Gardner, in contrast, does believe in God, although he makes it clear that there are no good reasons for doing so and his attitude is based on emotion not reason.
As might be expected, the quality of the articles on offer here is somewhat uneven. Some are frankly rather dull. There are also some good ones. Susan Blackmore tells us why she has given up on the paranormal; she has already done this elsewhere, but she writes well and the account is worth repeating. Victor J. Stenger, a physicist, does a fine demolition job on the widespread misuse of the term "energy" in paranormal circles. Geoffrey Dean and Ivan W. Kelly provide a good summary of tests of astrology, including Michel Gauquelin's work. But Wallace Sampson's treatment of alternative medicine struck me as superficial and too summary to do anything like justice to its subject.
Among the contributions of researchers outside the USA, the best comes from the Dutch contributors Cornelis de Jager and Jan Willem Nienhuis. Astrology figures here too, but I particularly liked their account of experiments on dowsing. The results were at the level of chance but what was particularly interesting was the reactions of the dowsers themselves. Far from being discouraged, all of them found reasons to discount the outcome and the authors comment that few paranormalists have any idea of what constitutes an adequate testing method.
This book offers a good reflection of both the strengths and the weaknesses of CSICOP. Throughout the quarter century of its existence the organization has provided a most valuable platform for critics of the irrational, but perhaps inevitably it has not always avoided the temptations that await the rationalist critic: pomposity, smugness, over-confidence. At least some of its members seem to be too sure that there is always a sharp line demarcating true science from pseudoscience. It is interesting to speculate on what would have been the response of CSICOP to the theory of continental drift if the organization had existed when Wegener put forward his idea. If nothing else, reading this book reminds one of how difficult it is to maintain a wary attitude to the irrational without sacrificing openness to new ideas.
3 November 2003