Tuesday, May 14, 2013

An older controversy: Marcello Truzzi and pseudoskepticism

While the blogs are arguing over the boundaries of skepticism, I want to summarize what I've read about an older controversy: those surrounding Marcello Truzzi.  Marcello Truzzi is credited with the saying, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof" (later paraphrased by Carl Sagan as "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence").  In 1976, Truzzi was one of the founding members of CSICOP, the first major skeptical organization in the English-speaking world.  However, Truzzi soon resigned from CSICOP, and became one of its biggest critics.

[Marcello Truzzi.  source]

What happened?  (The short version)

In 1976, Marcello Truzzi was the editor of CSICOP's periodical, which at the time was called The Zetetic (zetetic being a synonym for skeptic).  However, Marcello Truzzi wanted to include paranormal proponents in CSICOP and in the magazine.  The CSICOP board disagreed and gave him a vote of no confidence.  They found a new editor and renamed the magazine Skeptical Inquirer.  Marcello Truzzi went on to publish his own periodical called Zetetic Scholar in 1978.

Marcello Truzzi criticized many skeptics for already having a conclusion prior to investigation, and for claiming to be impartial judges when they were really advocates for one side.  He popularized "pseudoskepticism" as a term for what he criticized.

That's what you can find on Wikipedia.  However, I dug a little deeper, into the archives of Zetetic Scholar (which are publicly available) to explore Truzzi's views.

The purpose of Zetetic Scholar

[The cover of Zetetic Scholar No. 1]

In the first issue of Zetetic Scholar (henceforth ZS), Truzzi explains the purpose by way of legal analogy.  Paranormal proponents and CSICOP act as lawyers on opposing sides of the case.  ZS, on the other hand, is not a lawyer, but an amicus curiae, or "friend of the court".*  ZS is merely interested in bringing the full body of information to the jury--the readers.  As such, Truzzi refrains from expressing his own opinion on most of the matters at hand.

*I'm told that in the real court system, amicus curiae are far from impartial, so perhaps the analogy is not as good as Truzzi believed.

It's not really about "balance" in the sense of pretending that paranormal claims are on equal footing.  The first article in the first issue is all about Bayesian analysis, and it argues that it is rational to so strongly reject paranormal claims if you have low prior belief in them.  In subsequent issues, other writers respond and critique this article--and that's the kind of balance that ZS has.

Truzzi says that the subject matter of ZS is paranormal claims, which he distinguishes from supernatural claims (issue 10).  Supernatural claims are about miracles that defy the natural order, where paranormal claims simply say that our understanding of the natural order is missing something.  Truzzi also uses other criteria for what belongs in ZS.  He would not include flat-earth claims because there is no group advocating such a claim, only individuals.  He would not include Creationism, because Creationists are only interested in discrediting evolution, and have no constructive alternative theory (issue 8).  He would not include the kind of stuff in the newspapers, because it would be overkill (issue 5).

The content and flavor of Zetetic Scholar

[A typical illustration, from Zetetic Scholar No. 2.  The creature is not related to any article.]

So what sort of stuff made it into ZS?  There are articles about UFOs, correlations between celestial bodies and human behavior, Velikovsky's theory* that Mars and Venus had catastrophic close-encounters with Earth, talking dogs, remote viewing, the sasquatch, and so on.  There are articles with meta topics, like the concept of pathological science, surveys of belief, and epistemology.

*Originally, Truzzi had Martin Gardner, one of the CSICOP founders, as a consulting editor, but Gardner apparently resigned when he found that Truzzi would be giving space to Velikovsky's theories.

The majority of the space is taken up by "dialogues".  They start with a "stimulus" essay, and then Truzzi solicits responses from lots of different people.  They go back and forth for hundreds of pages across multiple issues.  One can be forgiven for thinking this quite dry, but perhaps the driest parts are the bibliographies.  There are lots and lots of bibliographies, especially in the early issues.

Every issue, there is an editorial, which gives us a very brief glimpse into Truzzi's mind.  He mostly talks about the proper way to argue paranormal claims.  In issue 5, he expresses reservations about the words "crank", "pseudoscience", and "pathological science", because they may be used to prejudge.  In issue 6, he says true zeteticism is about suspending judgement while doing further inquiry.  In issue 8, he says it might be rational to try dowsing or alternative medicine when you are desperate and there is no orthodox alternative.

The other motif in the editorials are exhortations to get more subscribers.  ZS had fewer than 500 subscribers, which is what it would take to break even.  By all accounts, ZS is a labor of love. But over time, ZS goes on a less frequent and more irregular schedule.  In the last few issues, Truzzi apologizes for being late, and promises the next issue will be on time.  The last issue is in 1987, and the second-to-last is in 1983.

The Mars Effect

[Affectionate satire seen in Zetetic Scholar, No. 11.  Truzzi, in a bishop's clothing, says "The position of our church remains open and seeks to be fair-minded towards all parties in the Mars Effect controversy.  We only demand that the sinners REPENT!"  A sign says "First Church of Zeteticism Bishop M. Truzzi".]

In 1980-1982, CSICOP was embroiled in a drama surrounding its investigation of the Mars Effect.  The Mars Effect is an alleged correlation between people who become successful athletes, and the position of Mars in the sky when they were born.  CSICOP sponsored a study to confirm or disconfirm the Mars Effect, and published its negative results.  But one of the people studying it, Dennis Rawlins, resigned and accused CSICOP of using bad statistical analysis to hide positive results.  In response, CSICOP attacked Rawlins' character and motivations, which caused further controversy.

Because of Truzzi's connection to CSICOP, Truzzi felt the need to express his opinions on the matter, whereas usually he would refrain from expressing his opinions in ZS.  On the substance of the Mars Effect, he just says that critics have not yet disproven the correlation.

Truzzi has much stronger criticisms of the way CSICOP handled the claim (Issue 9).  He criticizes CSICOP's political, rather than scientific, response to Rawlins' accusations.  He talks about the tension between CSICOP's supposed role as an ultimate judge of paranormal claims, and its role as an advocate protecting the public from the dark forces of "irrationality" and "pseudoscience".  Truzzi thinks it's important that someone fulfill the role of advocate, but doesn't like that CSICOP also pretends to be a paragon of paranormal investigation.

Nonetheless, Truzzi does not wish to discredit CSICOP, only to reform it.  While Dennis Rawlins resigned and publicly criticized CSICOP, Truzzi took the path of resigning and starting his own magazine as a constructive alternative.


In the final issue of ZS, four years after the previous issue, Marcello seems to have stronger opinions (or perhaps he's just expressing them more freely).

First he criticizes Project Alpha, wherein James Randi hired magicians to infiltrate and fool parapsychology researchers.  He doesn't think it stands up to serious scientific scrutiny, and laments that skeptics are holding a magician (James Randi) up as their knight.  He disagrees with the quote by H.L. Mencken, "One horse laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms."

Second, he publishes an editorial, "On Pseudoskepticism".   He criticizes people (without pointing any fingers) for holding a negative position on paranormal claims, rather than an agnostic position.  If such a person claims to be a skeptic, then they are a pseudoskeptic.  Only by taking the agnostic position can someone avoid the burden of proof.  He also criticizes people for jumping to the conclusion that if paranormal claimants have the opportunity to cheat, then they must have cheated.

I do not know if anyone responded to this editorial, since no more issues were published.  I believe Truzzi still continued work on his Center for Scientific Anomalies Research (which was founded by him in 1981) for some years afterwards, but activity declined.  Truzzi died much later in 2003.