Kendrick Frazier – The Skeptical Inquirer

January 23, 2009

Kendrick Frazier has been the editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine for over 30 years. He is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and the American Geophysical Union. In 2005, Frazier was made a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for “distinguished contributions to the public understanding of science through writing for and editing popular science magazines that emphasize science news and scientific reasoning and methods.” He is the author of a number of books, including The Hundredth Monkey: And Other Paradigms of the Paranormal, Encounters With the Paranormal: Science, Knowledge, and Belief, and Paranormal Borderlands of Science.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Kendrick Frazier discusses his long association with CSI (formerly CSICOP) and with Skeptical Inquirer magazine and explores the meanings of skeptical inquiry, both as ordinary common sense and as being continuous with science. He contrasts the paranormal with science, and explains why the paranormal was the initial focus of CSICOP. He explores debates within the skeptical community, such as whether or not belief in the paranormal is diminishing, and to what extent the movement has been successful. He talks about the breadth of claims currently dealt with at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, including both popular paranormal claims and more controversial scientific and scholarly subjects. He talks about three recent issues of Skeptical Inquirer focused on “deniers” and explains how deniers are different than skeptics. He explains paranormal or pseudoscientific claims that he has changed his mind about over the years, such as extraordinary human perception, and the mind-body connection as it relates to healing. He talks about how the magazine has dealt with religion over the years. And he talks about the future of skepticism and the need for new ways of outreach, especially to younger skeptics.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, January twenty third, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries. The radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grass roots. I’m happy to be joined this week by Kendrick Frazier. He has been the editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. The magazine published by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry at the Center for Inquiry. He’s edited it for over 30 years. He’s a member of the National Association of Science Writers, the American Geophysical Union, and is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He’s the author of a number of books, including The Paranormal Borderlands of Science, Encounters with the Paranormal, Science, Knowledge and Belief and the Hundredth Monkey and Other Paradigms of the Paranormal. Kendrick Frazier, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thank you very much for having me. 

Ken, you’ve edited Skeptical Inquirer, the magazine for science and reason for over 30 years. Must be a really fun job if you’ve stayed with it so long. Right. 

It actually is endlessly fascinating. I have never gotten bored with it. Hard to believe maybe for that long a time. But the subjects keep renewing themselves. I think it’s an interesting, significant publication. And I think what we’re doing is interesting and important. 

So, you know, rather than kind of just traipsing along the history of the 30 years and you know what the magazine was in its first decade or something, let’s start out with a broader question. What is skeptical? Inquiry magazine skeptical inquire. How is that different than just being a skeptic? 

Well, we say skeptical inquiry as sort of organized common sense. It’s nothing exotic. It’s nothing strange. Everybody should have a bit of skepticism in them. When you buy a used car, you kick the tires, you ask questions, you might take it to a mechanic. You don’t just accept what you’re told. That’s very good advice on all sorts of things involving ideas as well as the things you buy and purchase. 

So it’s kind of an approach to life. You’re saying it’s not just kind of a a position that’s cranky about outlandish claim? 

No, it’s very pragmatic. And in addition to the common sense aspect I just mentioned, it’s a very key component of scientific inquiry and philosophical inquiry to skepticism is just a part of a critical inquiry which goes into determining what is most likely to be true and what is most likely not to be true. And it’s a very important thing in all of our lives for us to avoid being had. 

You’re implying that skepticism is really continuous with science. 

It’s a key part of science. And in fact, I’m in this pretty much because I’m a science writer by profession. I love science. I find great joy in scientific discovery. I would love to share scientific discoveries and what we know about nature with the broad public possible. I think millions of people could find science interesting and fascinating and skeptical inquiry as a part of it. And then sometimes what I call what we deal with pseudo science is is the flip side of science. The opposite of science. The very opposite in almost every way, except they deal with the same subject. 

So you were just kind of seeing the praises of science. But when you talked about the paranormal, that that points out that Skeptical Inquirer focuses not just on the glories of science in general or at least in its history. It focused primarily on the paranormal and pseudo science types of claims that you wanted to bring real science to bear on. So it focused on that stuff much more than general science and society questions. Here’s one for you. Do you think that people believe in pseudo science in the paranormal as much these days as they did 30 years ago when the magazine started? Or have you noticed that all this work in skepticism? Is it actually making a difference? Is the magazine working? 

Well, that’s a matter of active internal disputes that I find very interesting. In the 70s, when we started, there was just an outpouring of interest in paranormal claims of all sorts. What happens over the years is that a series of them get tested, debunked endlessly times and then kind of die out for a while. But then they reemerge. No, there’s never they never totally go away. They change their their their guys, their clothes and come out in some other way. 

So the skeptics work’s never done. It’s these ideas, you know, they’re like a Phenix. They constantly come up at us again. Then there are those in the skeptics movement not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s like been there, done that. I already looked at those questions. I’m bored with this issue and they move on. You seem to be arguing, though, that we need to keep going back at the same topics again and again because there are always new believers. 

Well, you do. There’s new generations of believers. There are new generations of people who want to know actively what the truth is that we tried to appeal to very strongly. You can bore people with having dealt with the same subjects over and over. But since they keep coming back, we still have to deal with them. In addition, we have to find new, fresh ways and new fresh topics and broader subjects to examine. So we have to do it all. I find that’s what’s interesting to me. We we are a magazine and an organization that deals with popular claims that may seem trivial to the academic and they are fascinating to the public and all the way through to academic philosophical issues that are of deep, longstanding importance in philosophical and in scientific inquiry. We cover the whole gamut. And we do it in all the different levels that are necessary to do it. And and we hope we’re finding some sort of midway where we are academically and scientifically respectable while also popular. Lee appealing and readable and interesting to the to the general person who may not have deep scientific training. Mm hmm. 

So you’re talking about the breadth of the topics covered in Skeptical Inquirer over the years. What are some of the favorite topics that you’ve personally covered in the magazine? 

About a year ago, we did three consecutive issues virtually on what are deniers, the global warming deniers, the AIDS deniers and the vaccine deniers. Now, that simplifies matters. I and I’m Earth science writer myself. I understand the enormous complexities of climate. So the global warming issue is more than just deniers versus believers. It’s a very interesting scientific matter. 

Yeah. And let me interrupt there. I notice you’re using the term denier. You’re not using the term skeptic. So a global warming skeptic, you’re you’re calling that person a denier, not a skeptic. 

Like you’re a skeptic of the paranormal because good skeptical inquiry accepts facts that are well supported by scientific evidence. And what’s very important to scientific mind is open minded to new evidence and to new appraisals of evidence. If things change about your knowledge about about them, then you change your view about them. Science does that continually. It changes according to what the evidence shows. Those people who are ideological do not change, no matter what the evidence is. And that’s where denial comes in. I will not grant them the word skeptic, which I think is a cherished word in our field and in science. Mm hmm. 

The you mentioned global warming deniers, vaccine deniers. Those aren’t paranormal claims. Those aren’t pseudoscientific claims. That’s one of the ways skeptics require has changed over the years. You’ve broaden your focus. You’re not just talking about things that go bump in the night. You’re delving into things like global warming, stem cell research, science policy questions. 

We want to deal with issues, whereas there is public misunderstanding where that misunderstanding has important and serious consequences. And we want to try to help bridge the gaps between the understanding and the misunderstanding and clarify the issues and provide well-established, reliable scientific information about all claims that are of public importance and of public interest as well. Which raises a lot of the paranormal claims. 

Yeah. That said, you’re not moving on away from the paranormal, not broadening. 

We’re broadening and we’re trying to do all of that. I think we are unique in so many ways in that we have this incredible breadth of subject matter from, as I said, the academic to the highly popular. We try to approach each one with the seriousness it requires, and we are open minded enquirers. That is, we inquire into what the facts are about a case before you make a judgment about it. 

You’re contrasting that with a kind of a close minded debunker or or the kind of skeptic who is not open minded and following the evidence, but kind of has a conclusion to begin with. 

Yes. And that’s where people get into trouble working backwards, starting with the conclusion and trying to find evidence to support it. You can always find evidence to support any viewpoint you want. 

Science doesn’t work that way. A good scientist and a good sign of Inquirer or. Inquirer. Want to find out what the facts are and when they come up with a tentative hypothesis about it, they have to come up with a way to try to disprove it, to show if it’s wrong, to show that it’s wrong. And that’s part of what real science is all about. If you can’t do that, it’s probably not a scientific question in the first place. And if you don’t do that, you’re not doing really good science. You’re just trying to provide evidence for one side of an argument. You have to look at all the evidence and try to judiciously evaluate it and ask a whole series of questions about how reliable is each part of evidence. And like I said, it goes in to deep philosophical questions about how do you know what’s true? That’s at the root of a lot of what we deal with. But it comes down to the all the pragmatic matters equivalent to kicking the tires on a used rental car, buying something, buying alternative medical supplements and so forth. You have to realize that a lot of those things sound good, but they haven’t been evaluated by the FDA and they have been evaluated in a lot of tests and some pass and some don’t. So it involves a lot of interesting issues. 

When you’re talking about evaluating all the evidence, not kind of beginning with a conclusion and then only looking at the evidence to support it. Have you ever looked at a claim that your knee jerk reaction, maybe your initial hunch was that it was unsupportable and then you looked at the evidence and and discovered that you were wrong? Yeah, I’m especially curious about maybe a paranormal or a pseudo scientific claim. In other words, have you changed your mind on any of the core questions that Skeptical Inquirer addresses itself to? 

Well, one classic early one was a claim that a man could look at a series of grooves on a phonographic record and tell you what the music was like. Mm hmm. And this just seemed outlandish until you realized that the grooves on a phonographic record actually are visible and are very according to the sound. So it turned out this man had a unique ability that came from a lot of training and teaching himself that he could determine what piece of music was on on a photographic record by looking at the group. 

Sounds like a character out of an Oliver Sacks story or something. 

It does, doesn’t it? Yeah, of course, phonographic records don’t even hardly exist anymore. So I think it may be harder for that person these days. Right. 

Other examples in the area of mind body relations. I think medical doctors have come to realize that how we think about ourselves and our body and our situation affects in a physiological way how we recover from illness, how we stay well, how we respond to treatment. Mm hmm. And so I don’t think it’s anything mystical. 

I think these those kind of connections are being explained very well medically, physiologically, through interactions and understanding of the brain and how our brain and the rest of our body interact with each other. Right. So that’s an interesting one. 

So there’s a mind body connection, but it’s not a supernatural one. That’s right. Yeah. 

Ken, initially, the magazine didn’t really deal with religious topics. And that’s a subject, you know, religion, God, that we do talk about every now and then here on point of inquiry. You’ve never really addressed them in the magazine unless they were religious questions that made explicitly scientific claims like Stick Marda or Faith Healing. In other words, miracle claims that could be investigated. So there was always this kind of division of labor, like between Skeptical Inquirer on the one hand and its sister magazine at the Center for Inquiry Free Inquiry magazine. It focused more on ethics, religious skepticism, social issues. Do I have that right? You kind of divided your attention, even though you were both united by a common commitment to skepticism. 

That’s exactly right. Skeptical, quiet tends to deal with religious claims that are empirical, that is testable. And there are, of course, again, deep philosophical questions about what that means when it comes to religious claims. Richard Dawkins, for instance, contends and in his book The God Delusion and his other writings, that religion itself is a scientific claim and should be subject and subjective, all too critical and scientific testing. Other people dispute that. So that’s an interesting issue so that none of these border lines or boundaries. Are exact, are finite or indisputable. So as a result of skeptical inquire deals with religion in the context of science. 

That is how religion and science interact, conflict. And maybe sometimes complement each other. 

In fact, one of your most popular issues was the science and religion issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. 

Well, we’ve done three or four science and religion issues at the Met several year intervals, and they are quite popular. 

And we’ve even used them as a promotion device, as a giveaway to people who who subscribe sometimes in the past. We haven’t done one for a for a year or two. Might be time to consider. Yeah. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a free sample copy of Skeptical Inquirer by calling 800 six, three, four, 16, 10 during normal business hours and mentioning point of inquiry. Ken, I want to finish up you. We’ve talked about the breadth of what the skeptical choir covers. We’ve talked about kind of where religion fits in terms of the topics you address. I want to talk about the future. You’ve been at this for 30 years. You have an interesting vantage. You’ve kind of seen the highs and lows of skepticism over that time. Do you think that at some point we can all just pack up and go home, that we can say confidently skepticism won the battle against irrationalism? 

No, I don’t think that will ever happen. 

I think there are ebbs and flows and paranormal ism and and maybe sometimes we can take some credit for having advance the cause of reason and rationality and the kind of subdued some of the most outlandish claims of paranormal ism. But then they kind of come back in another way. So, no, the job is never done. And I think what we will constantly need, because we started off what we have always had an incredible scientific support from noted scientists and scholars worldwide. 

Yeah, some of the leading minds. Carl Sagan. Yeah. 

The great Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Stephen Jay Gould have all been fellows of our organization and contributors. 

And so you were making the point that in, you know, the future, not only is it going to be organizing the leading lights to advance the mission of Skeptical Car magazine, but also reaching out to new publics, young people, et cetera. 

Exactly right. We need a new generation of skeptical inquiries to carry on this exalted tradition for another many decades. 

We need young people who are interested in science, interested in finding out what’s true, interested in mysterious claims, and then finding out what the answers to them are, investigating, thinking and writing and reporting on these matters. And we need to adapt to the new set of media. They’re available and become not just a print magazine. We need to use all the other new media that are to extend the reach and to reach young people and encourage them to be involved. 

Right. Well, I couldn’t agree more, especially on that last point as point of inquiry. One of the big payoffs kind of psychologically is that the new publics that we’re reaching, new people who haven’t necessarily initially heard of the magazines, but they’re introduced to the fact that there is this movement of people who are coming together to advance this critical rationalist, the scientific point of view. And that’s really the point I’m taking away from what you’re saying, that this isn’t just a collection of, you know, senior citizen academics who are pronouncing that this and that other thing are untrue. It’s a movement that people can get involved in. 

Exactly right. There are new questions arising all the time. Science itself spins off issues and and questions that need Thirroul investigation and the public media. The proliferation of cable channels and the Internet sites, Web sites promulgate a whole bunch of new kinds of nonsense that require a whole huge number of new inquires to to examine and investigate. 

But at least it sounds like you’re optimistic. I’m always optimistic. 

I am a fairly cheerful person about these things. I’ve never been a dour person. And I think it’s interesting. It’s fascinating. And I encourage young people to get involved. 

Thanks very much for the conversation, Kendra. 

Frazier, you’re sure welcome. 

Where can you turn to find others like yourself who appreciate critical thinking, turned to Skeptical Inquirer, the magazine that separates fact from media myth. It’s published by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Find out what genuine science has to say about the extraordinary and the unexplained. You’ll be surprised. Subscribe to Skeptical Inquirer today. One year, six challenging issues for nineteen ninety nine. To subscribe a request, a sample issue, just call one 800 six three four one six one zero or visit the point of inquiry. Website point of inquiry dot org. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to participate in an online conversation about today’s episode with Kendrick Frazier. Go to our online discussion forums at point of inquiry dot org. Views expressed on this show aren’t necessarily CFI views, nor the views of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at points of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailed. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.