Founding member Bernard Howard reminisces on the Skeptics’ history in this guest editorial.
I belong to the constipated school of literary composition, so when the Editor invited me, only days before her deadline, to write an editorial for this special issue of the New Zealand Skeptic, my first thought was to say “No”. However, further reading of Annette’s letter told me to feel free to wander around NZCSICOP’s history, and to write about anything I fancied from my long association. The common view that the aged have an irresistible urge to garrulous reminiscence is not wrong, so here I am, ready to bore you with thirteen years’ memories of skepticism in New Zealand.
My own skeptical views are of much longer standing than that, as the yellowing 1950s edition of Martin Gardner’s Fads & Fallacies on my bookshelf will attest, but the chance to exercise that interest in New Zealand came only in the 1980s.
In early 1982, Scientific American had an article by Douglas Hofstadter praising the attitude and activities of the recently formed Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and enthusing over its journal, Skeptical Inquirer. This all seemed to be my kind of thing, and I sought specimen copies of this magazine through the NZ Libraries Interloan Service. The copies provided were from the library of the Consumers’ Institute, a fact I liked to dwell on both during the recent cordial reception given the institute’s present director at our 1998 conference, but also in the dark days of 1992, when the institute received our Bent Spoon.
Skeptical Inquirer proved of absorbing interest, and I have subscribed ever since. In my eyes, its only fault, and an understandable one, is its emphasis on US events. This makes it especially important that skeptical groups in other countries publish their own journals, such as the one you are reading now.
My first foray into a public display of skepticism was in the mid 80s. The Press printed a very one-sided credulous account of the wonders of “psychic surgery” in the Philippines. This was quite inexcusable, as Consumer magazine had not long previously published two articles exposing the whole fraud. I wrote a stiff letter to the editor in protest, my first of several on skeptical issues.
It is essential to respond to published nonsense publicly, to show that another point of view exists. I think we can flatter ourselves that such an uncritical report is unlikely to appear nowadays in reputable papers.
In the 1970s and into the 80s, the centre of skeptical activity in New Zealand was the Psychology Department at Otago University, from where Richard Kammann & David Marks published their pioneering book The Psychology Of The Psychic in 1979. At a time when many scientists were impressed by the “Geller phenomenon”, these two academics took a very skeptical view. Similarly, they sharply criticised the experiments in “remote viewing”, promoted at the time as the most convincing of so many tests of extrasensory perception.
On both matters further investigation has supported their conclusions. In the early 80s I had some correspondence with Dr Kammann (who has since died in which he mentioned the formation of a national group to investigate these matters, but the idea came to nothing.
However, in late 1984 a more forceful voice was heard, lecturing us in an American accent on the Shroud of Turin and other weird things. During the next year, discussions between Denis Dutton and David Marks and a few others led to the revival of the idea of a national society, and on a hot February afternoon in 1986 a small group met at the University of Canterbury to decide whether the time was ripe to launch such a venture.
I did not enter the meeting until late, and the first words spoken to me were “we have decided to form a committee, but don’t have a Treasurer yet. Are you interested?” Then, as now, I could not refuse anything Denis asked me, so I was appointed a few seconds after arriving. One of the points discussed of particular importance to the Treasurer was whether to set ourselves up as an exclusive elite, with a high subscription, or as a more popular mass movement with a low sub.
The latter prevailed, and I left the meeting with seven $10 notes, the subscriptions of the founding members, who were Mr Kerry Chamberlain of Massey University, Dr Denis Dutton of Canterbury University, Dr Gordon Hewitt of Victoria University, Dr David Marks of Otago University and myself.
We worried about a name for our new baby — a snappy “New Zealand Skeptics” or a lengthy dignified “New Zealand Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal” on the US model. The latter was our choice, but brevity has inevitably won the battle except for the most formal occasions.
Also discussed at our first meeting was the need to have an address, preferably a Post Office box. I was the only one there who had a personal P.O. Box, which I had rented when I first went to work at Lincoln College and live on the campus. The lady in charge of Lincoln College Post Office to whom I applied in 1964 was very apologetic that the only box she had free was number 13 (I wonder why). The offer of the use of P.O. Box 13 was greeted with hilarity by the committee, and seen as quite fitting for an organisation such as ours. This was our postal address for some years until I relinquished the box.
We aimed from the outset for publicity for our views, and had an early success. A well-known New Zealand psychic claimed he had “remote viewing” powers, and Dr Marks used his knowledge of this to test the claim. The encounter between the two proved the claim to be baseless, and the skeptics’ success was widely reported.
In early life the New Zealand Skeptics narrowly escaped a fatal accident. A member accused a psychic of being a fraud, the psychic brought a defamation action, and our member suffered severe financial damages. Fortunately, and because of the prudent way our public statements were worded, the Skeptics were not a party to this action, and so escaped what could have been a crippling penalty. We emphasise that, whatever our private thoughts, accusations of fraudulence or cheating are taboo.
In 1986, we had our first Conference and Annual General Meeting, our incorporation under the Incorporated Societies Act, the first issue of this newsletter and, sadly, the departure of our co-founder David Marks for a professional chair in a new university in London.
Following the example of our American colleagues, a number of members of the committee committed large proportions of their personal wealth to a challenge — $10,000 to any person who can demonstrate paranormal powers under agreed control conditions. As expected, psychics disdained performing for filthy lucre, and the thought of personal bankruptcy does not keep any of us awake at night.
Our relations with the media have always been important to us, and we very early adopted a carrot and stick approach.
The “carrots” are intended to reward journalists for critical and skeptical reporting, and to encourage more of the same. A handful are awarded each year, and we hope the handsome framed certificates are displayed with pride in the offices of newspapers, radio and even TV stations.
The “sticks” are our Bent Spoon awards, limited to one a year, for the most gullible piece of reporting or publishing. Unlike the awards for excellence, the Bent Spoons have no corporeal existence in this universe, and are sent telepathically to the recipient.
What I now see was a memorable event in our growth occurred in 1990 at a public meeting we held in Christchurch. I was approached afterwards by a young couple interested in membership. No ordinary members these — in a few years she was our Chair Entity, he was organising our growing membership list; thank you, Vicki and Peter.
From the seven founding fathers, NZCSICOP has grown continuously; a few months after its beginnings, at the first conference, there were more than 80 members. Now there are about 500, an encouragingly high proportion of New Zealand’s population, comparing more than favourably with other countries.
Since the beginning, New Zealand Skeptic has been the chief means for members to share views and ideas. The four editors who have overseen its production have served it well by the wise selection of material, and the writing of thoughtful and incisive editorials.
One of the most exciting aspects of my work with the skeptics has been involvement in organising the visits of, and meeting, notable skeptics from overseas whom I would otherwise never have encountered. With substantial help from our Australian colleagues we have hosted James Randi (US, 1993), Susan Blackmore (UK, 1995) and Richard Dawkins (UK, 1996). We have also enjoyed visits from Ian Plimer (Australia) thanks to the NZ Rationalist Association, and the editor of Nature — I wonder if Sir John Maddox still has the charred T-shirt known as the shroud of Akaroa which he was given at the Palmerston North conference?
Rivalling the visits from overseas VIPs in my memory is the firewalk at the 1989 conference. At that time, a scientifically satisfying explanation for the successful carrying out of this manoeuvre had recently been published, but a number of people were still peddling “mind over matter” training sessions for high fees. The Skeptics’ firewalk, arranged by Denis Dutton and his physicist colleague John Campbell, went off with minimum discomfort and maximum publicity. Since then the “psychic” firewalkers have disappeared, and the practice has become a standard part of corporate management training gatherings.
Have 25 years of organised skepticism made any impression on the world? Have fifty issues of New Zealand Skeptic made any local impression?
That gullibility abounds cannot be denied; charlatanry and honest self-deception are seen everywhere. To read early issues of Skeptical Inquirer and of this newsletter induce strong feelings of deja vu; so many of the topics exercising skeptics then are still with us, as well as some new ones — false memories, for example. Nevertheless, who knows to what pseudoscientific depths society might have sunk but for our efforts?
For myself, not to have taken part in this struggle is unthinkable, and my association has been a source of great satisfaction to me. I am sure our movement will be as necessary when our 100th issue is published as it is now. Sadly, I do not expect to be in a position then to write another guest editorial.