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
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
"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,
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
"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 (
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
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
"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
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
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.