The X-Plainable Files   by: Jonathan Vankin


       Perhaps the general public--that great unenlightened mass to whom the word "wired" means "too much coffee" and IU connotes a method of birth control--thinks of the Internet as a hangout for bomb- building, masturbating, terrorist Nazi nerds whose main source of income is selling animal sex videos to third graders. But once you're online for a while, you know that that's just silly. Those few misfits are far outnumbered by UFO buffs and conspiracy theorists.
       Well, maybe not too far outnumbered--but it's no revelation that the fringes of reason are much closer to the mainstream in the forum of the Internet where the parameters of acceptable debate are far broader than they are on, say, This Week With David Brinkley. At times, the Net seems like a big block party for anyone with a weird idea. Whether it's the guy selling tickets for a UFO-watching cruise to the South Pole (they fly out of a giant hole in the Earth there--and it's a steal to see at $9,999) or the guy whose Web site includes x-rays of his skull revealing the microwave receivers implanted in his brain, let's face it, the preponderance of bizarre notions is one of the most "just-plain- fun" aspects of Internet culture. So how could anyone stoop to spoil this nonstop celebration of the outré? Difficult as it is to believe, the Net is also home to a special breed of wet blanket: self-appointed guardians of reason and logic, whose main goal it is to piddle on these wild and wonderful theories. They call themselves "skeptics," and they don't want to believe.
       "Why the sudden explosion of interest, even among some otherwise sensible people, in all sorts of paranormal 'happenings?'" asks the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal on its Web site (http://www.csicop.org). "Are we in retreat from the scientific ideas of rationality, dispassionate examination of evidence, and sober experiment that have made modern civilization what it is today?"
       "In order to be a 'skeptic,' you must believe that the truth has a value in itself that makes it worth seeking, and that science, with all its faults, is a quest to separate such truth from falsehood," writes Peter Huston, vice president of "Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York" in that group's online newsletter, "The Why Files," (http://www.rpi.edu/ ~sofkam/ISUNY/why-files.html) a publication named in parody of every skeptic's least favorite television program.
       Forget for the moment that huge chunks of college tuition could be spent studying whether "dispassionate examination of evidence," "sober experiment," and "rationality" are in fact the building blocks of modern civilization--without arriving at an answer. The most damning charge that can be made against this type of "skepticism" is that its all- encompassing faith in the rectitude of its own position. It sometimes appears that to be a qualified skeptic, one must also be a cocky little bugger. Telegenic skeptic James "The Amazing" Randi (http://www.randi.org), for example, peppers his Web site with pejorative digs such as "medieval thinking," "goofiness," "nonsense" and "quackery" aimed at claims of the paranormal. But the head of CSICOP--a group of which frequent talk-show guest Randi is a founding member--takes a more conciliatory approach.
       "There are some people who are more hard-line skeptics," says Barry Karr, executive director of the two-decade-old CSICOP. "I think those people tend to be the ones who have been doing this a long time. But I think you have to keep an open mind and hopefully people will change their views based on what the evidence shows."
       As the most prominent organization in the skeptical milieu, CSICOP (http://www.csicop.org), headquartered in the upstate New York hamlet, Amherst, leads the charge against the scourge of UFO witnesses, astrologers, alternative medicine practitioners, transcendental mediators, psychics and other blights upon the face of modernity.
       The nonprofit group's own Web presence came in response to the preponderance of paranormalcy on the Net.
       "We got so many calls and letters from people telling us there's so much of this stuff on the Net and saying, 'You've got to get on the Web, you've got to counter this,' that people forced us into it," Karr says.
       CSICOP's main weapon is its "Magazine of Science and Reason," The Skeptical Inquirer, from which several articles from each issue are available on the Web (http://www.csicop.org/si/). In the pages of The Inquirer, CSICOP unleashes its arsenal of reason against such targets as the alien autopsy video, Virgin Mary apparitions and--horror of horrors-- aromatherapy. ("It is not the odor that arises from these fragrances that is troubling, it is the stench arising from the unwarranted claims made about them.")
       "Perhaps sometimes we go too far and are personally nasty toward paranormal believers. Perhaps we sometimes are biased in the sense of blindness to new phenomena," admits Taner Edis, proprietor of a leading skeptical mailing list (skeptic-request@listproc. hcf.jhu.edu) and keeper of the Skeptic Annotated Bibliography ( http://www.public.iastate.edu/ ~edis/skeptic_biblio.html). Edis, however, argues not that skeptics should be more open-minded, but that they should be more honest about admitting their prejudices, that they've arrived at a well-formed world view into which alien abductions and psychic detectives just don't fit.
       "I saw various instances of skeptics behaving in irrational and dogmatic ways," says Jim Lippard, a veteran skeptic who became disillusioned with CSICOP. "A lot of skeptics don't seem to recognize that when they're putting forth an alternative explanation of some phenomenon that they have to abide by the same standards of evidence as everyone else. And a lot of them don't seem to recognize that they have to defend their views as well."
       Lippard, in addition to operating his own Web page ( http://www.primenet.com/~lippard/) with one of the most thorough available inventories of skeptical Web links, manages the Web site for Skeptic magazine (http://www.skeptic.com). As with SI, Skeptic's site offers a subscription pitch beefed up with just enough content from the magazine to give the site a life of its own.
       Published by The Skeptics' Society, Skeptic takes a more, well, reasonable approach than its rival, that "Magazine of Science and Reason." Skeptic's credo comes from the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza: "I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them."
       As opposed to the self-assured and somewhat glib tenor of Skeptical Inquirer and the outright sneering found on Randi's site, Skeptic offers a rational view of rationality.
       "Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claimant might be right," say the editors of Skeptic on their site. "When we say we are Žskeptical' we mean that we must see evidence before we believe. Skeptics are from Missouri--the Show Me State."
       According to Karr, however, this view doesn't differ much from his own position. Karr is quick to point out that CSICOP, for example, is "a group of individuals," not an organization with a platform to which all members must adhere.
       "It's possible that there's life out there or even that UFOs are visiting our planet," Karr says. "But it's a question of evidence."
       Skeptic also ranges over broader and frequently more important subject matter than does its CSICOP-published counterpart. While SI keeps busy hammering away at wacky and generally harmless opponents (the latest issue posted on the SI site devotes a good-size article to debunking photographs of ghosts), Skeptic's recent issues have examined: the "Bell Curve" debate over the inheritability of intelligence, whether the HIV virus is the actual cause of AIDS, Holocaust "revisionism" and recovered memory therapy.
       "We were founded to look at claims of the paranormal," Karr counters. "We don't claim to be a social commentary magazine like Skeptic is. We don't claim to investigate everything."
       Nonetheless, Skeptical Inquirer has a long-standing committee to probe non-traditional health claims (hence the critique of aromatherapy), and has also taken on such topics as evolutionary theory and the claims of Satanic cult "survivors." The September/October, 1996 issue features an article, available on the Web, entitled "Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia: Notes From a Mind Control Conference" which critiques not only conspiratorial thinking but also the aforementioned "recovered memory therapy" (i.e., the recollection of allegedly suppressed childhood sex-abuse memories at the prompting of psychologists; see the False Memory Syndrome Foundation Web site at http://iquest.com/~fitz/fmsf/ for coverage of the issue).
       CSICOP's coverage of conspiracy theories helps fill a gap in the oeuvre of party-pooping Web sites. While there are dozens of skeptical sites--mostly sites put up by regional skeptic groups--there are a few devoted to debunking conspiracy theories.
       Of course, there are many devoted to advocating conspiracy theories of every stripe, but 50-year-old Marquette University political science professor John McAdams seems like a lone nut himself with his Kennedy Assassination Home Page (http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/), arguing that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.
       But while CSICOP deals primarily with matters that can, or should be able to be tested by scientific procedures, the murky shrouds of history leave the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (as well as many similar conspiracy theories) more ambiguous. McAdams, who teaches a course on the JFK assassination, says there are skeptical protocols even in that case.
       "If people on opposing sides of the issue can come up with theories that fit the evidence, then the question is how do you choose between two competing theories. The classic social science theory is very straightforward: parsimony. You favor the simplest theory."
       Scroll through postings to the newsgroups alt.conspiracy or alt.conspiracy.jfk for even five minutes, and it quickly becomes evident that parsimony is not a strong point of online conspiracy theory. Nor for that matter does it seem likely that skeptics will ever outnumber UFO believers and connoisseurs of the paranormal on the Net. Their online presence is small but at least it shows that the Net, like most UFO reports and Bigfoot sightings, leaves plenty of room for doubt.

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