The Skeptic's Dictionary

 

Vic Stenger (1935-2014)

Vic Stenger was a physicist who spent many years opposing creationism/intelligent design and defending atheism. He was a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a lifelong activist for secular humanism. He wrote many books, including God: The Failed Hypothesis (2007), Quantum Gods (2009), The New Atheism (2009), The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning (2011), God and the Folly of Faith (2012), and God and the Atom (2013). God and the Multiverse will be published posthumously. His articles on "Quantum Quackery" and "The Myth of Quantum Consciousness" are classics in the history of skeptical literature.

Dr. Narendra Dabholkar (1945-2013)

 

Narendra Dabholkar was one of India's leading opponents of superstition and defenders of rational thinking. He was founder of the Maharashtra Forum for Elimination of Superstition (Maharashtra Andha Shraddha Nirmulan Samiti) and editor of Sadhana magazine. At one time he was vice president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA). He was also active in IHEU, a global humanist movement. He was outspoken in his criticism of India's so called godmen, who take advantage of the superstitious masses. His efforts to get laws passed against superstition and black magic were met with strong opposition from various Hindu organizations. (NY Time obit.)



Robert "Bob" Steiner (1934-2013)

 

Bob Steiner was a friend, magician, writer, raconteur, a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and an all-around good guy. He was a former president of the Society of American Magicians and a member of the Magic Castle in Hollywood. Bob fooled millions of Australians as "psychic" Steve Terbot in 1984. He warned all of us that we could be the next dupe of a con man in Don't Get Taken: Bunco and Bunkum Exposed - How to Protect Yourself (1989).

Bob was one of the founders of the (San Francisco) Bay Area Skeptics. He was involved with James Randi in exposing the fraud Peter Popoff. Robert Scheaffer writes:

Steiner coordinated the entire Bay Area operation of James Randi’s elaborate “sting” of the televangelist Peter Popoff, who was receiving ‘messages from God’ via a concealed radio receiver in his ear. (Steiner invited me to participate, but because of work and family commitments I could not. As a consequence of their strict secrecy, I did not even find out the nature of the “sting” they had under way until its completion.) Steiner lined up the communications expert, Alec Jason, and the primary “patient,” Don Henvick, who three separate times was miraculously chosen from among thousands to be “healed” by Popoff, the last time in drag.

In his prime as a skeptic, Bob performed as a psychic, always revealing that he used trickery and deception at the end of his shows. In his later years, he devoted his magical talents to working with disadvantaged young people in an effort to give them some sort of direction away from drugs.

Leon Jaroff (1927-2012)

 

Leon Jaroff was a science writer who wrote the Skeptical Eye column for Time magazine in which he showed great skepticism in articles about psychics like James van Praagh, healing prayer, Diane Watson and amalgam fillings, psychics in general, homeopathy, John Edward, and dowsing for bombs. He once predicted the end of alternative medicine. He once wrote that "the antivaccine activists demonstrate both medical illiteracy and an appalling ignorance of history." For four years, he was the managine editor of Discover magazine.

 

 

Paul Kurtz (1925-2012)

“No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.”--Humanist Manifesto II (drafted by Paul Kurtz in 1973)

Paul Kurtz was the founder and past chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) (now called the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI)), the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Center for Inquiry. He founded Prometheus Books. Kurtz was one of the founders of the skeptical movement in the 1970s that focused on providing a skeptical resource for the media on paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. Kurtz started, and remained a leader in, the secular humanist, movement. While skepticism toward the paranormal may have been his first battle, his life demonstrated that his main interest was secular humanism and the establishment of non-religious based social and ethical thought. He was a leading proponent of atheism and an opponent of dogmatic, authoritarian religions.

Kurtz was a philosophy professor at the University of Buffalo for many years. He was a staunch proponent of science-based, as opposed to faith-based, worldviews, ethics, and social systems.

The New York Times published an informative obituary.

CFI's obituary includes the following:

He was one of the most influential figures in the humanist and skeptical movements from the late 1960s through the first decade of the twenty-first century. Among his best-known creations are the skeptics’ magazine Skeptical Inquirer, the secular humanist magazine Free Inquiry, and the independent publisher Prometheus Books.

 

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

Christopher Hitchens was an eloquent debater of politics and religion who infuriated millions of theists and atheists on the left and the right, an exquisite wordsmith who delighted and educated millions with his prose, and a formidable presence in his later years as a leader among public figures decrying theism.

Among his many books were Hitch 22: A Memoir, Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens, Is Christianity Good for the World?, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (selected and with introductions by Christopher Hitchens), and The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.

"Where others might have beguiled themselves with thoughts of divine purpose (why me?) and dreams of an afterlife, Christopher had all of literature."--Ian Mcewan

Henceforth, Johnnie Walker Black will be known as The Potable Hitchens.

C. E.M. Hansel (1917-2011)

C.E.M. Hansel was a psychology professor who was best known in skeptical circles for his criticism of parapsychology. His 1966 book ESP: A Scientific Evaluation is a classic and perhaps the first of its kind. It served as an inspiration for many critics of parapsychology. An updated version of the book was published in 1980 with the title ESP and Parapsychology: A Critical Evaluation. Many of the entries in The Skeptic's Dictionary rely heavily on the research and arguments of Hansel.

 

Bob McCoy (1927-2010)

Bob McCoy founded the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices. He was an internationally recognized authority on Medical Quackery and Health Fraud. He authored a delightful book on the subject of medical chicanery: Quack! : Tales of Medical Fraud from the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices (Santa Monica Press, 2000). The Skeptic's Dictionary article on phrenology features a picture of Bob wearing a psycograph, invented by Lavery and White and exhibited at the 1934 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.

McCoy was a Unitarian and former president of the American Humanist Association.

Martin Gardner (1914-2010)

Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1952, revised 1957) was the book that got me involved in the skeptical movement. It was there I first learned about pseudosciences like creationism,  Dianetics, and dowsing, as well as the actual scientific status of things like extra-sensory perception and psychokinesis. Gardner wrote dozens of books (over 70) and hundreds of articles on many subjects. He wrote about science, magic, mathematics, logical puzzles, and religion, among other things. The Skeptic's Bookstore has a room devoted to him.

Gardner was a founding member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP, now known as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry or CSI). His column, "Notes of a Fringe Watcher," ran for about 20 years in Skeptical Inquirer. Several of his books are collections of his writings for SI. His Mathematical Games column ran in Scientific American from 1956 to 1981.

The Washington Post has a fitting obituary/tribute. Gardner's interview with Michael Shermer is informative, as is the tribute from Daniel Loxton.

 

Helen Kagin (1934-2010)

Helen Kagin was a co-founder (with husband Edwin) of Camp Quest, a summer camp for the children of nonbelievers. In 2005, Helen and Edwin were named "Atheists of the Year" at the National Convention of American Atheists. Helen was active in the Free Inquiry Group of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

Basava Premanand (1930-2009)

For the best part of the past forty years, B. Premanand relentlessly pursued the spiritual tricksters who plague India. His exploits exposing the "godmen" and their fake miracles (including Sai Baba) have been immortalized in the documentary Guru Busters. According to James Randi, Premanand was known for "conducting science workshops for the educated and laypersons, giving public lectures and demonstrations. He visited about 49 countries with his mission to spread skepticism and critical thinking."

Michael Dennett (1949-2009)

Michael Dennett published several articles in Skeptical Inquirer, beginning in 1981 with a feature on Bigfoot. He also wrote articles on fire walking, the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, the Salem witch trials, and psychic detectives. He contributed two chapters to Psychic Sleuths (1994): “America’s Most Famous Psychic Sleuth: Dorothy Allison” and “A Reticent Psychic Sleuth: Rosemarie Kerr.”

For twenty years, he headed the Society for Sensible Explanations.

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

Arthur C. Clarke authored nearly 100 books, mostly on science and science fiction, including 2001: A Space Odyssey.

He instructed that "absolutely no religious rites of any kind, relating to any religious faith, should be associated with my funeral."

He was an early advocate of space exploration and an inveterate inquirer into all things strange and unusual, as evidenced by his TV series Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious Universe.

My favorite quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Jerry Andrus (1920-2007)

Jerry Andrus was the most wonder-full man I've ever met. A documentary about his life was most aptly entitled "A Thing of Wonder." Not only was he filled with wonder about the human mind, sense perception, and the world around him, he brought wonder to the lives of many people with his brilliant observations, inventions, and optical illusions. He called his house the Castle of Chaos.

Jerry was an internationally renowned magician who created all his own tricks and illusions. Magicians came to him to study his close-up magic. He designed many simple devices to illustrate how the brain works in sense perception and how easy it is to be fooled by "our wonderful brain." For the past few years, he displayed many of those creations at the Skeptic's Toolbox and the Amazing Meetings. Thanks to video and the Internet you can view some of these here and here and here and here.

Perry DeAngelis (1963-2007)

Perry DeAngelis was one of the driving forces behind the formation of the New England Skeptical Society (NESS), served as its executive director, and was a regular panel member on The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe.

Perry was a regular contributor to the NESS Newsletter. He'll be remembered for his unrepentant skepticism that suffered no fools and for his humor and wit in the face of illness and suffering.

Barry Lane Beyerstein (1947-2007)

Barry Beyerstein was a professor of psychology and a member of the Brain Behaviour Laboratory at Simon Fraser University. He was a fellow and a member of the executive council of the Committee of Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) (formerly the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal - CSICOP) and a regular presenter at the CSI-sponsored Skeptic's Toolbox.

Barry published extensively in the field of brain-behavior relationships, psychopharmacology, consciousness, perception, memory, and the psychology of belief. His essay "Social and judgmental biases that make inert treatments seem to work" is required reading for those who want to understand why people believe in quack medical notions. He wrote many articles critical of paranormal claims and of delusions such as astrology, graphology, faith healing, and countless medical and psychological quack beliefs.

Barry served on the editorial boards of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, and The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine.

His awards included a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, the gold medal of the British Columbia Psychological Association, the Donald K. Sampson Award of the B.C. College of Psychologists, and the Mentor Award from the Center for Inquiry - Transnational.

Richard H. Popkin (1923-2005)

Dick Popkin was the world's foremost historian of skepticism, an internationally acclaimed scholar on Jewish and Christian millenarianism and messianism, the founding editor of the Journal of the History of Philosophy, founder of the International Archive of the History of Ideas, an outspoken skeptic of the Warren Commission report on JFK's assassination, and the author of hundreds of articles and books in the history of philosophy. At the age of 80 he published a book on Spinoza, and at the time of his death was working on a book about the 16th-century Rabbi Isaac of Troki. It is no exaggeration to say that his work in the history of skepticism led to a revolution in thinking about the origins of modern philosophy and science.*

Popkin taught philosophy at several universities, including UCLA, Washington University in St. Louis, and the University of California at San Diego where he and Avrum Stroll founded the philosophy department. Popkin and Stroll co-authored several books.

Among his many honors, Popkin was awarded the Nicholas Murray Butler Medal by Columbia University (where he earned his Ph.D. in 1950) and was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Philip J. Klass (1919-2005)

Klass was a founding member of CSICOP and the leading skeptical investigator of UFO sightings.  Among his publications were: UFOs -- Identified (1968), The Real Roswell Crashed-Saucer Coverup (1997), UFO Abductions: A Dangerous Game (1989), and, for young readers, Bringing Ufos Down to Earth (1997).

Klass was senior avionics editor of Aviation Week & Space Technology for over thirty years.

Because he never validated a UFO report as probably being an alien craft, he was often criticized by those who refuse to accept explanations of sightings in terms of celestials bodies, aircraft, weather balloons, tricks of perception, or any other non-alien explanation.

 

Robert Baker (1921-2005)

Baker was a psychologist and an expert on many things, including alien abductions, ghosts, hypnosis, memory, and reincarnation. Until his retirement, he was chairman of the psychology department  at the University of Kentucky. He authored numerous articles and books, including They Call It Hypnosis (1990), Hidden Memories: Voices and Visions from Within (1992), Mind Games: Are We Obsessed with Therapy? (1996), and (with Joe Nickell) Missing Pieces: How to Investigate Ghosts, UFOs, Psychics, and Other Mysteries (1992). He also edited Child Sexual Abuse and False Memory Syndrome (1998).

He was very critical of the way hypnosis has been used to encourage hallucinations and false beliefs about sexual abuse, alien abduction, and past life regression.

 

Ernst Mayr (1904-2005)

Mayr was probably the most important evolutionary biologist of his time. He was a major force in promoting the synthesis of Darwinian natural selection, genetics, and population movements and geographic isolation as how new species are created.

Mayr wrote more than 20 books and over 600 scientific papers, two-thirds of which were published after he retired from Harvard in 1975. Five of his books were published while he was in his 90s.

He was awarded the Balzan Prize in 1983, the International Prize for Biology in 1994, and the Crafoord Prize in 1999. There is no Nobel prize for evolutionary biology; otherwise, no doubt Mayr would have been awarded that prize as well.

Johnny Carson (1925 -2005)

Johnny Carson will be remembered mostly for his 30 some years as host of the Tonight show on NBC. But skeptics will remember him as the one who enlisted the aid of James "The Amazing" Randi to expose Uri Geller before millions of late-night TV viewers. Randi was a guest many times on Carson and Randi's foundation--the JREF--was the recipient of large sums of money from Carson, who explicitly asked Randi to use the money to fight the likes of Montel Williams and Larry King in their promotion of such characters as Sylvia Browne.

Randi also appeared on Carson to expose the charlatan faith healer Peter Popoff. Not that it did any good. In an interview with Penn & Teller, Randi revealed that Carson received a number of letters in response to the show, all of them wanting to know how to get in touch with Popoff.

Click here to view a video clip of Randi exposing Geller and Popoff from NOVA's "Secrets of the Psychics."

Read Randi's "eulogy" here.

Margaret Thaler Singer (1921-2003)

Margaret Singer was an expert on schizophrenia, cults, and questionable psychotherapies. Her book with Janja Lalich, "Crazy" Therapies, is a classic exposé of many untested and dangerous practices employed today by some in the mental health field.

Singer was an expert on brainwashing, a subject she began to study in the 1950s at Walter Reed Institute of Research in Washington, D. C., where she interviewed U.S. soldiers who had been taken prisoner during the Korean War.*

She came to Berkeley, California, in 1958 and worked there as a clinical psychologist, researcher, and teacher until her death.

Her book Cults in Our Midst is considered the definitive study on cults. It was recently revised to include a commentary on the connection between cults and terrorism.

Among her many awards were the Hofheimer Prize given by the American Psychiatric Association for Research in Psychiatry and the Dean Award from the American College of Psychiatrists.

 

Marcello Truzzi (1935-2003)

Marcello Truzzi was one of the founding members of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) in 1976, but soon resigned, claiming that the committee was more interested in debunking than in investigating.

Truzzi published the Zetetic Scholar in 1978 and founded the now-defunct Center for Scientific Anomalies Research in 1981. The Greek word zetetic means seeker, and Truzzi maintained that the true skeptic is a seeker rather than one who arrives at a position. As such, he was out of tune with the vast majority of skeptics, who believe that it is appropriate to take a position when the evidence warrants it.

Typical of Marcello's approach to paranormal subjects is the conclusion he and co-author Arthur Lyons drew in The Blue Sense: Psychic Detectives and Crime (New York: The Mysterious Press, 1991). After hundreds of pages of evidence of deception and self-deception by so-called psychic detectives, they concluded that there still might be some psychic somewhere who has genuine paranormal abilities. True. And the sun might rise in the west tomorrow, but what are the odds?

Truzzi considered most skeptics to be pseudoskeptics, a term he coined to describe those who assume an occult or paranormal claim is false without bothering to investigate it. A kind way to state these differences might be to say that Marcello belonged to the Pyrrhonian tradition, most of the rest of us belong to the Academic skeptical tradition.

 

Walter C. McCrone Jr. (1916-2002)

Walter C. McCrone Jr. was a renowned microscopist who claimed in 1978 that the shroud of Turin is a medieval painting. The American Chemical Society gave him their National Award in Analytical Chemistry for his shroud work and for his persistent defense of it.

Over the past 40 years, the McCrone Research Institute in Chicago, a non-profit organization he founded in 1960, has taught more than 20,000 students about microscopy. He also founded a similar institute in London.

McCrone authored more than 600 papers and 16 books or chapters of books.

 

Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002)

Stephen Jay Gould was the most well-known evolutionary theorist since Charles Darwin. His field was paleontology (Ph.D., Columbia University 1967) and his specialty was fossil mollusks and snails. He authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles, including essays in each of 300 consecutive issues of Natural History magazine. He was a gifted writer without equal among science writers. He could tie together disparate threads in colorful and interesting ways and connect arcane scientific issues with mundane events like baseball games.

Gould is best known for his theory, with Niles Eldredge, of punctuated equilibrium as an alternative to the gradualism favored by most evolutionary biologists.

Gould was also known for his public attacks on pseudoscientific "creation science" and for debating creationists on the issue of teaching evolution. Gould's view was that non-scientific theories like creationism do not belong in the same classroom as scientific theories like evolution. In The Mismeasure of Man, he attacked pseudoscientific theories used to support racist ideologies.

Two months before his death, Gould published his magnum opus, the 1433 page tome he called The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.

And, oh yes, he sang in the choir.

 

Steve Allen (1921-2000)

Steve Allen was mainly known as an entertainer, but he was very active in CSICOP, Critical Thinking and the Skeptical Movement. He was a co-chair of CSICOP's Council for Media Integrity and most recently had been waging a campaign against the filth and violence that dominates television and films.

In addition to being the first host on the Tonight show, he wrote and produced Meeting of Minds, which brought together for dinner and conversation historical figures such as Attila the Hun, Charles Darwin and Marie Antoinette. 

Each program featured one great woman from the past to be played by his wife Jane Meadows.

He also authored 53 books and recorded 52 albums. Shortly before his death he finished the manuscript for another book about violence and vulgarity in the media, tentatively titled Vulgarians at the Gate. He was also a jazz musician, and many know him as the one who played Benny Goodman in the 1955 story of Goodman's life.

Steve Allen was one of the truly heroic figures of our time.

L. Sprague de Camp (1907-2000)

L. Sprague de Camp authored numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including The Ancient Engineers, a book everybody should read, especially anyone who thinks aliens must be posited in order to understand the wondrous engineering feats of our ancient ancestors.

Though he is mostly recognized for his science fiction and fantasy works, de Camp wrote several important non-fiction books in addition to The Ancient Engineers, viz., Great Cities of the Ancient World, The Day of the Dinosaur, Darwin and his Great Discovery, The Great Monkey Trial (the Scopes evolution trial), as well as biographies of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan).

Martin T. Orne (1929-2000)

Martin Orne was a psychiatrist who pioneered the use of hypnosis in therapy and in criminal investigations He also became one the most vocal critics of abusing hypnosis in both settings.

He was considered an expert in multiple personality disorder and examined Kenneth Bianchi, known as the Hillside Strangler, who had been diagnosed as an MPD by Dr. Jack Watkins.

Orne convinced the court that  Bianchi was not a true MPD and had faked both the hypnosis and the personality "Steve." The defense tried to blame this "alter" for the murders of several women. Bianchi.was sentenced to life in prison.

Orne cautioned that people under hypnosis can regress to past lives, but that the past lives were confabulations, as are many of the "memories" induced by hypnosis and other methods of suggestion.

Ashley Montagu (1905-1999)

Ashley Montagu was an anthropologist who worked tirelessly against discrimination of the handicapped, women, and minorities.

He authored many extraordinary books, including Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, The Natural Superiority of Women, The Elephant Man: a study in human dignity, Growing Young, Touching, and the Ignorance of Certainty.

Montagu concerned himself with real problems, such as worldwide corporal punishment and genital mutilation of children, rather than pseudo-problems such as satanic rituals and child sacrifice.

While much of America became afraid to touch, hug or display any physical affection for children, Montagu insisted on our species' need for touching and love to survive.

His works should be studied to remind us of just how much of our humanity is lost the further we depart from early childhood when we loved to be held and touched, when we were boundlessly curious and playful, when we were joyful and loved learning new things.

Marvin E. Wolfgang (1924-1998)

Marvin Wolfgang was acknowledged in 1994 by the British Journal of Criminology as "the most influential criminologist in the English-speaking world." 

He introduced and perfected a methodology which analyzes great masses of data over years, such as arrest records, to discern patterns of violence and crime. Such  studies are now common in the social sciences.

He was the first to document, beyond anecdotal evidence, that a disproportionate number of crimes are due to a few chronic juvenile offenders. 

His work influenced legislative bodies and criminal justice policy makers around the world. He was most proud that his research findings were used in the Supreme Court's Furman vs. Georgia decision (1972) which held that the death penalty as then applied by states was racially biased and unconstitutional. 

Carl Sagan (1932-1996)

A friend of skepticism and critical thinking, Carl Sagan was a rare scientist who could communicate with the general public in a language they could understand. 

In television programs, interviews, articles in popular Sunday magazines such as Parade, and in numerous books, Carl Sagan demonstrated by his life and works the wonders not only of science but of what it means to be a human being. 

There are very few who are capable of doing what Carl Sagan did, for very few share his skeptical attitude, his vast scientific knowledge and his passion for teaching others. I feel as if I have lost a friend. I know I have lost a mentor. Carl Sagan was truly a candle in the dark. 

Gordon Stein (1941-1996)

A leader in the secular humanism movement. At the time of his death he was senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine* and Director of Libraries at the Center for Inquiry. He was known for his expertise in spiritualism, hoaxes, and deceptions and for his editing of encyclopedias (of Hoaxes, of the Paranormal, of Unbelief) and anthologies (of Atheism and Rationalism vol. 1 and vol. 2). He also edited American Rationalist magazine and wrote an account of the deceptions of famous British Victorian medium Daniel Dunglas Home: The Sorcerer of Kings: The Case of Daniel Dunglas Home and William Crookes.

Stein was a valued Technical Consultant to the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

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