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Title: The Need to Strive to Be Better: A Call to Action for the CFI
Author: Michael J Geiser
Copyright 2016; all rights reserved
I thinkI discovered SkepticalInquirer(SI) magazinewhile doingresearchforanIntroductionto
Philosophyclasspaperon waysmoralscoulddevelopwithoutreligion incollege in1987. The honesty
and insightof contributorslike Carl Sagan intriguedme andprofoundlyinfluencedme boththenand
now. As a longterm readerof SI,I have encountered whatIconsidertobe an increasinglynumberof
articlesin SIthat have quite franklydisappointedme;Ifinditincreasinglydifficultinmany casesto
differentiatebetweenthe tacticsand lack of scientificrigorof some of the authors in SI and the subjects
of the articles. While amassmarketpublication likeSIisnota scientificjournal like Natureand
shouldn’ttryto be;it doesneedto maintain ahigherlevel of integrity andprofessionalism thanthe
nonsense the magazine exposes.
I alsofirmlybelieve thatSIreaders’expectationisthat SIcontent, whenviewedthroughthe same lens
appliedtothe pseudoscience skeweredinthe magazine, doesnotsufferfromthe same faultssuchas
Straw Man constructs,convenientself-servingfaux science, group-thinktraps,logical fallacies,ad
hominemattacks andotherreasoningorethical failures thatmislead ordeceive people.
I’dlike toreviewsome recentSIcontentwiththe same skeptical eyeand toolkitsforbaloneyand
pseudoscience detection SIauthorsapplytothe subjectsof the articles andsuggestsome important
changesthat will serve the goalsandmake the argumentsevenstronger. The itemsIselectedare a
small sample of the generallywelldone contentbutthese are significantinthattheyshow problems
that make the work producedtobe lessthancompellingorjustoutrightridiculous. Iwill alsosuggest
waysI thinkas a community CFIand SIcan improve andaskthat these suggestionsbe seriously
While Iagree some of the examplesIuse are from olderissues,Isee the same problemsincurrent
issues;Ijustfindthese specificexamplestobe especiallyegregiousandstandoutamong the too many
Straw Man Arguments
The “BigfootLookalikes:TrackingHairyMan-Beasts"article inthe Sept.-Oct.2013 issue (online at
http://www.csicop.org/si/show/bigfoot_lookalikes_tracking_hairy_man-beasts) isaprime exampleof
Straw Man argumentsandthe problems thatoccur without adequate peerreview. Mr. Nickell hasa
reasonable premise,butstructuresthe proofs largely uponabase of hisanatomicallyinaccurate hand
drawncomparative sketches thatare so outrageouslyinaccurate thathiswhole argumentcollapses.
To start, Mr. Nickell uses informalandhighly anatomically inaccuratesketcheshe createdasthe basis
for comparisonof the featuresof a bearand a Bigfoot. While creatingananatomically accurate sketch
of a mythical creature like a“Bigfoot”isbydefinition impossible,the “bear”Mr. Nickell usesinthe
comparisonlacks almostany anatomical accuracyand is unsuitableassupport;hisdrawingresembles
Yogi Bear more than an actual bear. The anatomy of Mr. Nickell’s“bear”iscompletely wrong;the
stance, skeletal structure,facialfeatures,ears,front-paws,frontlegs(whichlooklike humanarmsmore
than frontbearlimbs),rearlegs…nothingaboutthisdrawingresemblesa real bearbut isa cartoonish
artisticinterpretationof abear (ora man ina bear suit) thatcouldeasilybe assumedtobe an
intentionalmisrepresentation tosupporthisargumentand to show similarities tothe "classic"
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descriptionof aBigfoot. If youcompare an actual photoof a bear foranatomical correctnesstoeither
Nickell’sbearorto what ispurportedtobe Bigfoot, the comparisondoes notmake the compelling
argumentMr. Nickell suggests.
Comparinganimage of a real bear (oriented andscaledtoMr. Nickell’sdrawing) showsthe problems
withMr. Nickell’s sketch. Ihave includedacomparisonof Mr. Nickell’s“bear” tobotha Bigfootandto
an actual bear. In thiscontext,Mr. Nickell’sargumentis,tobe generous,notcompelling. WhileIagree
that thisimage is not the core of the argumentinthe article,itisclearlya centerpiece andMr. Nickell
invitesthe readertodrawconclusionsonthe validityof claimsbasedonhisbear/bigfoot sketchandin
part for “provingthe similarity”betweenthe two.
Bear/Bigfoot Split drawling:
Photo of bear standing:
Such a significantfailure of acore tenetof the article (itisthe onlyillustrationinthe article andclearly
meantto be persuasive) wrecksthe credibilityof the entire article andlegitimatelymakesone doubtthe
qualityof the otherarticlesinthe magazine andthe magazine'sstandardsingeneral. Italsohighlightsa
more systemicissue:howdidthispseudoscience bunk(andIthinkitisfairlycharacterizedasbunk)
make it pastprepublicationreviewsand intoprintina magazine that meantto expose thistype of
Pseudoscience:Inventinganuntestable junk“science” toconvenientlysupportpet theories
“ForensicCaricaturing”,fromShameon ShamusSham (August2006
www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/shame_on_shamus_sham),isanexample of patentlysilly
pseudoscience thatisexactlythe type of nonsensethatJoe Nickellwouldnormally andexpertly ripto
shreds. I honestlythought thiswasanApril Fool’sDay joke article until Irealizedthe article wasfrom
Mr. Nickell actuallywrote, “Ifinallydecidedtocreate anew field,‘forensiccaricaturing’“…“Withthis
methodthe differencesare enhancedsothattheymay be more readilyperceived.” Ina shocking
abandonmentof scientificrigorandreasonthatis supposedtobe the cornerstone of SI,Mr. Nickell
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decidedtomake upan entire “newfield”of science,replete with avery “science-y”andauthoritative
and legalesesoundingname, “forensiccaricaturing”,togive thisnew fieldanundeserved airof
authenticity andcredibility. Mr.Nickell issubjectivelyandwithoutreproducibility“enhancing”
differencessotheyare “more readilyperceived”(hisown words;notmine). Since wheninscience,or
evenina persuasive article, are we allowedto arbitrarily change datasothat it fitsa desiredoutcome
that we predetermine ordesire? I thinkI lastsaw this tactic usedbyKirkCameronwithhis
“Crockoduck”;and we knowwhata crock-o-crapthe “Crockoduck”is. Mr. Nickell laterinthe article
ironicallywarnsus“…againstthe temptationtoacceptuncriticallythe imaginingsof afailedclairvoyant”
(Nickell,2006); the warningshouldbe heededforbotha failedclairvoyantanda well-meaningbut
overzealous respected andexperienced authorwhoshould know better.
How didan article thatwithoutanyattemptto disguise thatit inventinganew “scientific”disciplinethat
withoutreproducibilityoranybasisinfact can magically supportthe author’spettheorymake itto
publicationin SkepticalInquirer? Thisloudlyandemphaticallypoints toa needforclearlypublication
standards and improved peerreview forall submissionsregardlessof the author.
BusinessTransparency and Governance
I am alsoconcernedthatCSI committee membersare recipientsof CFI’sown“BallesPrize inCritical
Thinking”. The committee membersmaywell deserve recognition,butit isa bad ideaforpeople tobe
able to vote or nominate themselves, theirco-workers, community leadersorbosses fora meritaward
that comes witha cash prize fundedbydonations. Asaparallel, The NorwegianNobelCommittee
responsible forthe selectionof eligible candidates forNobel Peace PrizeLaureates maynotnominate or
choose themselves asrecipients;thisseemsaprudentconstraint toadopt.
CFI as a nonprofitsolicitsdonationsbutmustavoidthe appearance of impropriety. Ipersonallydecided
to not donate to CFI until Icouldbetterunderstandhow these fundswouldbe used. RecognizingCSI
committee membersisacceptable,but givingoracceptinga monetaryaward froman organizationof
whichtheyare on the governingboardor have extremelyclose ties should notbe allowed.
False Cause Fallacies
Anothercommonfallacyhighlightedinmainarticlesthatthe subjectssufferfromis“False Cause”
fallacies;unfortunately SIalsohas allowed some of thesefaultsfromtheireditorsand authorstoslip
In the “From the Editor”columnin the Sept/Oct2013, EditorKendrickFrazierdiscussesanarticle thatin
part includeswhere the motherof AmanaBerrywhowas toldthat herdaughterwas deadwheninfact
she was alive andbeingheldcaptive. The columnstates,“The motherneverrecoveredfromhergrief
and diedof heartfailure in2006.” How didthisline,evenin aneditorial, getintoprintwithoutafact
checkor flaggedas unacceptable forSIstandards? There isno evidence thatthe mother,Louwana
Miller,“neverrecoveredfromhergrief”andshe infact diedof complicationsof pancreatitis,notheart
failure, in2006 (Newcomb,2013). Well,Isuppose youcouldargue that everyone ultimately diesof
heartfailure butthat wasnot the intentof the editor. The grief and the deathfromheartfailure
mentionedinthe same sentence clearlyare meanttoimplya causal connectionthatdoesn’texist and
vilifySilviaBrowne. Thisisa peculiarstatementif the intentwasNOTmeantto implycausationandan
editorshould insistonaphrasingwithoutanintentionallymisleading interpretation andnot
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A magazine editor,especiallyone fora magazine withthe focusof SI, shouldnotmake thistype of
statementandfurthermore howdidthis obviouserrorpassprepublication reviewsand validations?
Opinionarticlesmake magazines exciting,butincorrectfactsare not opinions;theyare justincorrect
facts. Howdoesa readerdifferentiate betweenpooreditorial controlsandmultiple mistakesfromlack
of professional rigorfromintentionaldeception? Ithinkitisfair to saythat neither is acceptable fora
magazine like SI.
Vilifyingarticle subjectsand Ad Hominemattacks
The picture of SilviaBrowne onthe coverof The September/October2013 issue (Vol.37No. 4) andthe
relatedarticle are more of a characterassassinationviaadhominemattackspepperedwithafew
supportingfactsthana compellingdeconstructionof the conartistMs. Browne wasdemonstratedto
Thisillustration onthe coverseemstobe a compositionandthenexaggerationof three stockimages
froma wide spanof time and you can easilyfindthe sources asthey are returnedinthe firstfew results
of a Google Imagessearch. We can clearlysee the pose andexacthandpositioning andringfromone
photo,the blouse andjewelry fromanotherphotoandfacial featuresfromathird more recentphoto.
The drawingintentionallyexaggeratesanddistortsfeatureslike givingherskinahaggard leathery
appearance withdeeplinesitdid nothave and distortingherhandsintoemaciatedclaw-like
appendageswithtalon-like blacknails thatshe didnothave. The artistwantedusto imagine herasa
witchor crone. I getit; she wasa horribleperson and few SIreaderswoulddisagree.
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Clockwise from upper left:
Much betterphototo use to lambast her (no PhotoShopping required-I really wish I could"unsee"this one...It burns!It burns!)
Parody,sarcasm andhumor ingeneral are effectiveandpersuasive literary toolsandmake for
interestingreading,butthere isaprofessionallineandthat line iscrossedif the rhetoricor image used
inthe expose orparody ismean-spirited,misogynisticorracist. Thisexample issuchan exaggeration
that itarguable crossesthat line andgoesbeyond“artisticlicenseandfreedom”. There isnoplace in SI
for ad hominemattacks;andthere isno doubtthis characterization wasa petty cheapshot. Most
people thatare subjectof uncomplimentary SI articles,andespeciallySilviaBrowne, presentenoughof a
legitimate targetthatthischeapand obvious ploymustbe avoidedasitisunnecessary anddistasteful;
there isno needto“preach to choir”.In anycase, these tacticsshould be rootedoutbefore publication
and effective peerreviewwoulddothiswell.
Doesthe Committee forSkeptical Inquiryhave anobjective view of itself? Mostof the columnsand
articlescome froma Committee member(whichis fine) butisanyof the publishedcontentpeer
reviewedusinganykindof acceptance criteria? If itis,there issome seriousproblemsbecause the
material Iidentified asunsuitable forSI(andIbelieve otherswillagree astounsuitability) regularly
appearsinprint. CSIcommittee membersshouldbe considerablybetterthanme at self-regulatingand
identifyingandfilteringcontentthatisnoton the level appropriate forthe magazine.
Call to Action
So,why didI write?WhatwouldIsuggest SI do? I wouldlike topropose thatSI beginsamandatory
“scholarly”(i.e. blindorotherapproach) peerreview forall articlesandevenshorterpieces,eventhose
(maybe especially those) submittedbynotedauthorsor SIstaff. The “BigfootLookalikes”,“Shamus
Sham” andother editorial failures showthatevenauthorswithdecadesof experience whoare greatly
respected needpeerreviewed feedbackandthese examplesshow anindisputable needforan
additional level of review andmoderationof content atSI. The skepticcommunityisbroadenough and
SI’sreputationisrespectedenough thatIsuspectyouwouldhave little problemfindingenoughqualified
people whowouldbe willingto freely givetimelyandappropriate feedback inpeerreviews.
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Joe Nickell isadistinguished professional author,leaderand skeptical pioneerandIreallyenjoyreading
(almost) all of hiscontributions,butthe “BigfootLookalikes”and“ShamusSham”articleshave serious
fundamental issues andshouldneverhave made ittoprintin the formsthat theydid. NeitherMr.
Nickell,noranyone else,shouldgetafree passfromreview andrejectionof unsuitablesubmissions. I
realize there maybe some internal political issueswithrejecting orprovidingcritical feedbackona
paperfrom Mr. Nickell consideringhisnotorietyandposition inthe organization,buthisauthorityand
status(or anyone else’slackthereof) cannotinfluence if anarticle ispublished. GrantedthatI do not
personally knowMr.Nickell,butIwouldbe surprisedandfranklydisappointedif he wasunable to
accept legitimate criticismof hiswork. Anonymouspeerreview of articlesbefore publicationwould
clearly benefitbothSIandcontributors. Institutingadouble-blindoropenpeerreview model of all
publishedcontentwouldbe agoodideaandthe twoitemsIcitedshow that there isan undeniableneed
to do so;self-regulationhasnotworked. Isuggestthat mainarticlesmustpassa blindpeerreviewand
opinionpiecesorcolumnsshouldgetatleast anindependentreadingandfeedback; especially if the
editoror otherCFI authority isthe author.
The sum of these problemsmade me thinkof aquote by KevinCostner’scharacterof Elliot NessinThe
Untouchables(1987): “I have foreswornmyself.Ihave brokeneverylaw Ihave sworntouphold,Ihave
become whatI beheldandIam contentthat I have done right.” I think thisa fair(albeitmelodramatic)
assessmentof whatisgoingonhere. There indisputably have beencompletely inaccurate statements
that are presentedunchallengedasfacts. The “laws” of Baloney Detection androotingoutlogical
fallaciesandbunk usedtoassessthe validityof otherclaimsare ignoredandthere isa clearsense that
the SI contributorshave the moral highground. CSI andSI shouldacknowledge the currentproblems
and take corrective actions; SIreaders andthe skepticcommunity deservenoless.
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Frazier,Kendrick."FromThe Editor."Skeptical InquirerSept.-Oct.2013: 4. Print.
Network.Web. 7 May, 2013. <http://abcnews.go.com/US/amanda-berrys-mother-died-
Nickell,Joe."BigfootLookalikes:TrackingHairyMan-Beasts."Skeptical InquirerSept.-Oct.2013: 12-15.
Nickell,Joe."Shame onShamusSham."Skeptical Inquirer.Committee forSkeptical Inquiry(CSI),24Aug
2006. Web.21 Dec. 2013. <http://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/shame_on_shamus_sham>.
Skeptical InquirerSept.-Oct.2013: 30-35. Print.
“SkepticAuthorsStevenSalzbergandJoe Nickell toReceive BallesPrize inCritical Thinking”,14June