Scientific Skepticism: the Skeptics

Back to Skepticism

Using the tools of logic and science to test extraordinary claims

Table of Contents

  1. Harry Houdini (Erik Weisz)
  2. Martin Gardner
  3. James Randi
  4. Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
  5. Carl Sagan
  6. The Skeptics Society
  7. Skeptic’s Dictionary
  8. Skeptics on TV
Harry Houdini (Erik Weisz)
  • In his later years Houdini, the great escape artist, campaigned against mind readers, mediums, and others claiming supernatural powers. He exposed them as charlatans who produced their effects through tricks and gimmicks.
  • He wrote Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (1920) and A Magician Among the Spirits (1924).
  • Houdini and his wife conducted an experiment in Spiritualism: the first to die was to try to communicate with the survivor. His widow declared the experiment a failure before her death in 1943.
Martin Gardner

Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, 1957

James Randi
  • One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge
    • Since 1964 Randi has offered a cash prize to anyone who could pass a scientific test of their claimed paranormal powers.  In 1996 the prize reached a million dollars, yet no one has received a penny. High-profile psychics, including Sylvia Browne, John Edward, and Uri Geller, have refused the challenge.
  • Carlos
    • To show how credulous people are, Randi invented Carlos, a 2,000-year-old entity who had returned as a young American artist named José Alvarez.  Randi and José toured Australia in 1988, fooling audiences into thinking José was a reincarnation of Carlos endowed with psychic powers.
  • Quotes
    • “Those who believe without reason cannot be convinced by reason.”
    • “Everyone who believes in telekinesis, raise my hand.”
Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

  • Paul Kurtz founded CSI in 1976 as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP).
  • Founding members included James Randi, Martin Gardner, Ray Hyman, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Marcello Truzzi, B.F. Skinner, Philip J. Klass, Barry Beyerstein, Milbourne Christopher
  • Truzzi was fond of saying “an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof,” which Carl Sagan popularized as: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
Carl Sagan
  • 1980 TV-series Cosmos
  • 1996 Book Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
  • “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge”
  • “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” 
  • “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”
  • “If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.”
The Skeptics Society

  • Founded in 1992 by Michael Shermer
  • Shermer, once a fundamentalist Christian, stopped believing in God in graduate school.
  • Shermer has written books on a variety of topics:
    • Cycling: Endurance and Speed 
    • Why People Believe Weird Things
      • “More than any other, the reason people believe weird things is because they want to.  It feels good. It is comforting. It is consoling.” 
    • Secrets of Mental Math: The Mathemagician’s Guide to Lightning Calculation and Amazing Math Tricks.
  • He writes the Skeptic column for Scientific American
Michael Shermer by Jeremy Danger
Skeptic’s Dictionary

  • Founded in 1994 by Robert Todd Carroll
  • “A delusion held by one person is a mental illness, held by a few is a cult, held by many is a religion”
Skeptics on TV
  • Penn and Teller
    • Penn & Teller: Bullshit! aired from 2003 to 2010 on Showtime.
  • Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage
    • MythBusters first aired January 2003 
    • Tested myths are rated: Busted, Plausible, Confirmed
    • Mythbusters Motto: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.