by David Bloomberg
Over Columbus Day weekend, the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) invited representatives from all of the local skeptics groups east of the Mississippi River to their headquarters at the Center for Inquiry in Buffalo, New York. I went as the REALL's representative.
It was an interesting and informative weekend, both for us (the local groups) and, I think, for CSICOP, who had not had such a meeting with so many representatives before. The two most important points to come out of the meeting are summarized below. If you have any comments or questions, please contact me.Centers for Inquiry
At the meeting, we were told that there is a plan to build Centers for Inquiry (CFIs) around the country in as many major metropolitan areas as possible (though I'm afraid nothing in Central Illinois really qualifies right now). CFI is joint home of both CSICOP and the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH), and they discussed the possibility of bringing other groups in as well (such as groups related to health fraud issues).
These CFIs would act as bases from which the local groups can cooperate with them and make use of some of their resources to help in a variety of ways, depending upon the specific situation of that locality. For example, the Atlanta group has been dormant for the past couple of years because they relied on a single person to do all the work. That person, however, eventually could not handle the workload all by herself and the group has drifted apart. CSICOP Chairman Paul Kurtz pointed out that a CFI in Atlanta could have possibly provided a part-time secretary to take some of the workload.
In other cases, a CFI could provide office space (rather than having to work out of our homes), meeting places (not everybody gets free meeting rooms at the local library), and even a phone hotline. All of this depends, of course, on getting money to support them, but they are working on that as well (they would also expect help in that endeavor from the groups local to the CFI).
So, what does this mean for REALL? Right now, not much. As I said, it's not likely that a CFI will appear in Central Illinois any time soon. If one did appear in Chicago or St. Louis, then we could cooperate with them (indeed, the CFI in Kansas City has mentioned the possibility of working with us on some things; Editor Bob will be talking to them about that this month when he goes to a conference there). Also, the CFIs could be used as bases from which speakers can be farmed out (for example, if a well-known skeptical speaker came to the Chicago CFI, they might send him down to Springfield as well).Affiliation
One proposal that came out of the meeting that certainly could affect us is the possibility of local groups affiliating with CSICOP.
Under this idea, which has not yet been approved by the CSICOP board (Paul Kurtz wanted to see what we thought of the idea first), local groups that chose to do so would become CSICOP affiliates and would therefore fall under CSICOP's status as a tax-exempt and tax-deductible organization. As I understand it, this would mean we would no longer have to pay sales tax and all donations to REALL would be tax-exempt. While local groups can accomplish this on their own, it can be expensive and time-consuming (one local group had several active members working on getting this done, they have already spent a good deal of time and money, and still have not gotten everything finalized).
Under this plan, we would remain autonomous and retain control over all of our operations; the only change would be that we'd have to submit a form to them every year detailing our financial status (contributions, expenditures, etc.). All of the local groups in attendance were very positive about the idea (remembering that we want the line between CSICOP and CSH to be kept).
So why wasn't this done sooner? Because when lawsuits started flying a number of years ago, several of them named CSICOP even though CSICOP had nothing to do with anything (in particular, there was a suit involving Hawaii's local group and naming CSICOP as a co-defendant, even though they had never even heard about the situation). Thus, while CSICOP helped to set up most (if not all) of the local groups, by loaning out mailing lists and aiding in other ways, the groups are independent and autonomous.
Now that the lawsuits seem to have died down and there is less of a worry that a single lawsuit will bankrupt the whole organization, CSICOP wants to reach out to the local groups.
In all honesty, I don't see a downside to this for REALL. If anybody has any concerns, please contact us, in case I'm missing anything (I'm an engineer, not a lawyer or an accountant).Miscellaneous
One subject that spurred some debate was the fact that skeptics groups, in general, do not address religious issues, or, indeed, anything that is "non-testable." We only worry about those claims that can be tested. Thus, a claim that God exists (or doesn't exist) is non-testable and not addressed by our groups; a claim that a faith healer can rid you of cancer is testable and would be addressed. CSH, as the name implies, addresses issues related to religion. The skeptics groups were worried that the association of these two groups in the same building might blur that line in the sand. In several sessions, we made our feelings known and I think we got our point across. We will continue to remind CSICOP of the way we feel. Perhaps the most interesting part of the meeting was the way every organized local skeptics group at the meeting stood together on this issue, even though most of us had never discussed it before. We did agree that we understand the need for CSICOP and CSH to share quarters within the CFIs due to economic concerns.
Overall, the meeting was time well-spent. In addition to these main points, there were other discussions, and there will soon be an Internet mailing list set up for representatives from local skeptics groups to share ideas, concerns, etc. This kind of cooperation can only help every local group and the cause of rational and critical thinking everywhere.