Skeptical Inquirer is a bimonthly American magazine published by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) with the subtitle: The Magazine for Science and Reason. In 2016 it celebrated its fortieth anniversary. For most of its existence, the Skeptical Inquirer (SI) was published by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, widely known by its acronym CSICOP. In 2006 the CSICOP Executive Council shortened CSICOP’s name to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and broadened its mission statement.
|Based in||Amherst, New York|
The formal mission statement, approved in 2006 and still current, states that...
"The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry promotes science and scientific inquiry, critical thinking, science education, and the use of reason in examining important issues. It encourages the critical investigation of controversial or extraordinary claims from a responsible, scientific point of view and disseminates factual information about the results of such inquiries to the scientific community, the media, and the public."
A shorter version of the mission statement appears in every issue: “... promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims.” A previous mission statement referred to “investigation of paranormal and fringe-science claims,” but the 2006 change recognized and ratified a wider purview for SI that includes new science-related issues at the intersection of science and the public while not ignoring core topics. A history of the first two decades is available in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal published in 1998 by S.I. editor Kendrick Frazier.
The magazine was originally titled The Zetetic (from the Greek meaning skeptical seeker or inquiring skeptic) and was originally edited by Marcello Truzzi. The first issue was dated Fall/Winter 1976. Soon after its inception a schism developed between the editor Truzzi and the rest of CSICOP. One side was more "firmly opposed to nonsense, more willing to go on the offensive and to attack supernatural claims" and the other side wanted science and pseudoscience to exist "happily together". Truzzi left to start The Zetetic Scholar and CSICOP changed the magazine's name to Skeptical Inquirer. In 1977 Kendrick Frazier was appointed editor. He had previously been editor of Science News for six years.
Kurtz noted that there had been “tremendous public fascination with the paranormal” and it was “heavily promoted and sensationalized by an irresponsible media.” He stressed that “Our interest was not simply in the paranormal curiosity shop but to increase an understanding of how science works.”
Historian Daniel Loxton speculates on the answer to the question that if CSICOP was not the first skeptical publication, why is it considered to be the "'birth of modern skepticism' (at least for the English-speaking world)"? Loxton writes that it was because CSICOP organized "this scholarship collectively [and] comprised a distinct field of study." The organization was the first to establish "best practices... specialist experts... buildings... periodicals and professional writers and researchers."
In the 1978 Spring and Summer edition, it was announced that the very next issue (Vol III, No 1) publication would move from semi-annual to quarterly.
From 1976 to 1995 the magazine had a digest-sized format. It was agreed to change to the larger more traditional sized pages and in 1995 it was decided that in order to become more timely with its topics it would be published bi-monthly instead of quarterly. The U.K. magazine The Skeptic was first published in close association with SI. In 2014 the British version was handed back to the U.K. Skeptics.
For the thirtieth anniversary of the Skeptical Inquirer in 2006, CSICOP founder Paul Kurtz listed four long-standing policies:
According to Kurtz, in the first twenty years, the magazine attempted to focus on the paranormal. Solving mysteries that were outside the range of normal: frogs dropping from the sky, UFO abductions, cattle mutilations and more. Readers expected the magazine to have explanations. Kurtz states that these were exciting years, especially working with magicians who would often replicate the paranormal claim. The magazine often received criticism from the paranormal community, that they were being made fun of. Skeptical Inquirer according to Kurtz kept the focus on investigations, gathering together a network of people who excelled in research of the paranormal. Kurtz felt that interest in the paranormal was beginning to fail, one piece of evidence he used for this was that so few paranormal books were on the New York Times Bestseller list that had been there years before. He suggested that SI should expand into areas that have controversy, appeal to the public, and where SI could pull from its network of people to investigate. Subjects he selected for consideration were stem cell research, cyberterrorism "biogenetic engineering, religion, economics, ethics, and politics". Some of these subjects Kurtz was happy to point out that Frazier was already exploring. Kurtz concluded his overview of the past thirty years by thanking subscribers for their financial support, the Internet had caused subscriptions of print magazines to drop, and only by expanding outreach has SI been able to survive.
In a review of forty years of organized skepticism published in 2015, Frazier wrote, “. . . we have done our best to keep aglow the light of reason and rationality and to cultivate scientific thinking in the wider public. We have critically examined thousands of individual claims and assertions, and published the results for the world to see. We have explored virtually every issue important to skeptics. We have encouraged greater skepticism in the news media and served them as a source of reliable scientific information. We have done our best to make others aware of the dangers to a democracy of all confusions between reality and fantasy, sense and nonsense, and real science and its pretenders and adversaries.“
Kendrick Frazier, who has edited Skeptical Inquirer since August 1977, has described the magazine as “an unusual hybrid: part semipopular magazine and part scientific and scholarly journal.” He said, “I think it’s fair to say that we not only help to cross disciplinary barriers within scientific fields but bridge the gaps between the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences, between science and the humanities, between academics and nonacademics, and between science and the general public.”
Frazier has also frequently spoken of the broader goals and higher values of skeptical inquiry that he says the Skeptical Inquirer tries to exemplify: “We skeptics do it all, investigating the smallest strange mysteries while also explaining the powerful tools of science and reason and applying them to thinking about the broadest issues of concern and confusion in today’s complex societies.“
Daniel Loxton writing in 2013 about the mission and goals of the skeptical movement quoted an editor of the Swedish skeptic magazine Folkvett who felt that SI was a magazine written by '"old white men, for old white men"'. He criticized the idea that people wanted to read about the paranormal, Uri Geller and crystal skulls not being relevant any longer. Paul Kurtz in 2009 seemed to share this sentiment and stated that the organization would still research some paranormal subjects as they have expertise in this area, but they would begin to investigate other areas, S.I. '“has reached an historic juncture: the recognition that there is a critical need to change our direction."' While editor Frazier did expand the scope of the magazine to include topics less paranormal and more that were an attack on science and critical thinking such as climate change denialism, conspiracy theories and the influence of the alt-med movement, Frazier also added that "paranormal beliefs are still widespread" and quoted surveys that state that the public given a list of ten general paranormal topics will select four as a topic they believe in. While the general skeptic community believes that we should not waste more time debunking the paranormal, topics long ago discredited, Frazier says "millions of Americans accept them today."
Writing for Scientific American Douglas Hofstadter states that the purpose of Skeptical Inquirer magazine is to "combat nonsense... nonsensical claims are routinely smashed to smithereens." He writes that articles are written for everyone that can read English, no special knowledge or expertise is needed, the only requirement is "curiosity about truth".
Scientists, scholars, investigators, and other experts worldwide contribute feature articles, columns, reviews, and commentaries to the magazine. CSI currently has about a hundred distinguished Fellows. Notable Fellows of the past, include Isaac Asimov, Martin Gardner, Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, and Nobel laureates Francis Crick and Glenn T. Seaborg. Current fellows include Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins, Jill Tarter, James Randi, Bill Nye, Eugenie Scott, Daniel Dennett, Richard Wiseman, E.O. Wilson, Elizabeth Loftus and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg.
The CSI Executive Council serves as the editorial board of the Skeptical Inquirer. Members as of April 2016 were: Kendrick Frazier, James Alcock, Harriet Hall, Ray Hyman, Scott O. Lilienfeld, Elizabeth Loftus, Steven Novella, Amardeo Sarma, Eugenie Scott, Karen Stollznow, Dave Thomas, and Leonard Tramiel. In addition to these Executive Council members, CSI’s senior research fellow and SI “Investigative Files” columnist Joe Nickell also serves on the SI editorial board. CSI Executive Director Barry Karr is an ex officio member.
As of April 2016 Consulting editors are Susan Blackmore, Kenneth Feder, Barry Karr, Richard Wiseman, Ed Krupp and Jay Pasachoff. Contributing editors are D.J. Grothe, Harriet Hall, Kenneth Krause, David Morrison, James Oberg, Massimo Pigliucci, Robert Sheaffer and Dave Thomas.
Several notable skeptics have described the influence the magazine had on them during the early stages of their development as scientific skeptics. In 1995, Perry DeAngelis and Steven Novella were friends that played Dungeons and Dragons together until DeAngelis noticed a Skeptical Inquirer magazine on the table in Novella's condo. DeAngelis who was also an avid reader of the magazine, pointed out the back page to Novella and said "What is missing?" DeAngelis stated that what was missing was a Connecticut skeptic group, he said "we should do this" to which Novella agreed. They started the New England Skeptical Society and eventually the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe (SGU) podcast.
Skeptic Susan Gerbic writes that finding a Skeptical Inquirer magazine one day in the library started her on the path of critical thinking. 'I wish I could remember which articles were in it, but I’m sure I was intrigued by the cover art... it was probably in the very early 1980s. It was like a light bulb went off. It was like walking down a hallway and opening doors into subjects I didn’t know existed. Some topics made me say to myself, “People believe in that crazy thing?” and other topics made me say, “Wait, that isn’t real?”'
Writing for Scientific American, Douglas Hofstadter asks the question, why would Skeptical Inquirer succeed when the only people who read it are people who do not believe in the paranormal? The answer, he says, lies in the back of the magazine in the "Letters to the Editor" section. "Many people write in to say how vital the magazine has been to them, their friends and their students. High school teachers are among the most frequent writers of thank-you notes to the magazine's editors, but I have also seen enthusiastic letters from members of the clergy, radio talk-show hosts and people in many other professions."
Daniel Loxton in his essay "Ode to Joy" about discovering Skeptical Inquirer magazine as a freshman at his University writes...
But the true treasure, the lamp at the end of the cave, the thing that helped set the course of my life, was hidden away in the periodical collection: a complete set of the Skeptical Inquirer, going back to its launch in 1976. I couldn’t believe such a wealth of skeptical research existed! I worked my way through the stack systematically, hungrily.... I’ve been thinking of that experience a lot recently. These last weeks have been a rough ride for many skeptics, as longstanding debates about the scope and tone of skepticism have collided with the decentralized, organic nature of skepticism 2.0. I care a lot about those issues, advocating often for a back to basics approach to skepticism—a traditional, science-based skepticism that solves mysteries and educates the public. So, I thought: why not really go back to the beginning? Why not go back to my own roots as a skeptic, reading those old back issues—and back further, to the roots of the skeptical project? The Achilles heel of skepticism 2.0 may be that new skeptics are unfamiliar with the literature. And so, these last few days I’ve been losing myself in Skeptical Inquirer issues from 1977 and 1978. I’m falling in love all over again. The directness of those early voices is inspiring: here were investigable mysteries, and by god, skeptics were going to solve them. And they did. I’m learning a great deal by looking back once again at how they worked, about how things have changed and about how they haven’t... We’ve come a long way since 1976—further since the days of Houdini—but we’ve got things to learn from those who set us on this path. Let’s have another look at what those things are.
Inspired by the four decades of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, artists Ellen Levy and Patricia Olynyk were featured February 2016 in the Baruch College Mishkin Gallery. Reviewer Eileen G'Sell writes that they "plumb the depths of the murky ontological sea that is empirical belief." Reviewer states that the work represents, "this built-in confrontation between fact and fiction was the basis of the Skeptical Inquirer itself and its playful willingness to consider the most unlikely phenomena.
Over the years a number of anthologies of Skeptical Inquirer articles have been published by permission or arrangement with CSI. Five general anthologies of SI articles have been published by Prometheus Books
In addition, Prometheus also published this special-themed SI anthology
In addition to these, CSICOP (or CSI) has also published a number of small anthologies of short SI articles, often used for subscription promotion purposes and not always widely available.
In 2011, Robert Sheaffer collected and republished the first two decades (1977–1997) of his Psychic Vibrations columns from the Skeptical Inquirer in a self-published book titled Psychic Vibrations: Skeptical Giggles from The Skeptical Inquirer. Illustrations by Rob Pudim (also from SI).
Martin Gardner republished most if not all of his Skeptical Inquirer “Notes of a Fringe-Watcher” columns in six of his books. With many he added informative “Afterwords” or “Postscripts.” In most of these books the first half consisted of his most recent SI columns; the second half, his reviews and writings for other periodicals.
A DVD-ROM was released in 2006 containing Volumes 1 through 29 of SI which covers the dates Fall/Winter 1976 – November/December 2005.
In addition to the columns and articles, the magazine includes reviews of paranormal and skeptic books of note written by staff or guest writers. A "Letter to the Editor" section is also included. The magazine inside covers note current CSI fellows, Scientific and Technical Consultants as well as Affiliated Organizations. Also listed are CFI locations worldwide. The final page features a Skeptical Anniversaries section written by Tim Farley and a Carbon Dating cartoon strip written and drawn by Kyle Sanders from CarbonComic.com.
The Skeptical Inquirer website features more online columns and content, and an app supports online subscription or individual digital issues.
Date of filing: September 16, 2015. (Required by 39 U.S.C. 3685) Title: Skeptical Inquirer. Frequency: Bimonthly. Publisher: Center for Inquiry, Inc., Amherst NY. Editor: Kendrick Frazier. Deputy Editor: Benjamin T. Radford. Owner: Center for Inquiry, Inc. Average number of (print) copies of each issue during the preceding 12 months: . . . Total (print) distribution: 24,133. Copies not distributed: 10,162. Average number of electronic copies of each issue during the preceding 12 months: 539. Total print distribution + paid electronic copies: 24,672.