SKEPTICISM IN BRITAIN AND IRELAND....

By Wendy M.Grossmen

When I came to Ireland in January, 1987, from one of my regular visits back to US, and announced I was going to start a skeptical newsletter, the reaction was... well, skeptical. An atheist professor explained to me earnestly that there was no tradition of skepticism in Ireland. And I was uncertain how it would be regarded by the old British committee, since the suggestion that I start it came not from them but from CSICOP's executive director in America.

The background: the British Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICP) was one of the first international committees to be set up, only two years after the founding of CSICOP itself. Formed in 1978, the CSICP consisted of a number of prominent scientists and writers, including Professor C.E.M.Hansel, Ian Ridpath, the editor of Popular Astronomy, statistician Christopher Scott, and Karl Sabbagh, a leading medical journalist and independent television producer. The CSICP's secretary since its foundation, Michael Hutchinson, is now the UK distributor for Prometheus Books. In 1984, the CSICP helped organize a session on fringe science at the British Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting, and in 1985, the CSICP hosted the first CSICOP conference ever to be held outside of the USA. However, because the committee's members were so busy, meeting were necessarily sporadic, and none had the time to take on editing a newsletter which would draw in a greater and more active membership.

I imagine that most people wanting to start a newsletter have a committee backing them. In 1987, when skeptics in my old home, Ithaca, NY, wanted to start a group, first they formed a committee, and then the committee got a couple of hapless volunteers to edit the newsletter. Their first newsletter was one A3 sheet folded over-four pages, in other words...and advertised local activities.

Because my newsletter, by now christened The British & Irish Skeptic (B & IS), was to cover such a large geographical area, it was obvious to me that I couldn't just send out four pages and expect much of a response. And there were no meetings or activities to advertise. Therefore, I reasoned, the only way to attract subscribers to keep the thing going was to offer a more substantical publication. My first issue was 16 pages, and included contributions from David Bergman, a lecturer in philosophy at Dublin's, Trinity College, Lewis Jones, a writer and editor and CSICP member Leslie Shepard, editor of the Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology and a lot of stuff I wrote myself. My phone bill for calling around all these people (none of whom I knew) was astronomical!

About ten days later, I was very excited to find the first two responses to the B & IS waiting in my mail box. They were from Toby Howard, Manchester, and Redge Lewis. So, Devon. Both enclosed cheques for subscriptions and long, long letters about the newsletter and skepticism in general. And they were only the beginning. Lots of people wrote whole pages about what they thought the B & IS should become and send huge collections of newspaper clippings about the paranormal. As I write this (September, 1988), the B & IS has about 115 subscribers...in the UK, Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the US, and South Africa. The most exciting part about that is that we don't even know how some of those people heard about us.

We have had eleven issues now, and several have been as large as 40 pages. This year, we finally switched from running the newsletter off on the photocopier I have at home to commercial printing. That meant looking hard at the finances, and for now we have settled on a format of 28 pages. We have a number of frequent contributors, and several regular columnists, including Michael Hutchinson, who writes about "psi-watching". Now that I'm retiring as editor, I've started doing a column of my own, called "Skeptic at large...", which could turn out to be anything. We consistently run a page of European news and we now have our very own skeptical comic strip, thanks to a wonderful anarchist cartoonist named Donald Rooum.

In terms of other activities, things are beginning to look really bright here now. Toby Howard, with help from Martin Bridgstock, now returned to Australia, and Steve Donnelly, has founded a strong, energetic committee in Manchester, and they are taking the lead in organising skeptical activities in the UK. Together, Toby and Martin organized the largest skeptical meeting ever held in Britain in Manchester last December. Now, one of our subscribers wants to convene a skeptics' group in Scotland, and another wants to found a London Students' Skeptical society. Peter O'Hara, the chairman of the Irish skeptics, is organizing a series of regular meetings in Dublin pubs to end one of the biggest problems for an Irish skeptic: isolation, and the belief that no one else shares your views. Because of Toby Howard's efforts, we have been able to sell single copies of the B & IS through a couple of Manchester bookstores: we hope to start doing the same thing in Durham. Toby also co-founded the skeptics e-mail network together with Jim Lippard, of Phoenix, Arizona. All this activity has made it possible for me to turn the B & IS over to Manchester committee to run. Toby Howard and Steve Donelly are the news editors, beginning with the November/December 1988 issue.

There is certainly a lot to be done here. In Ireland, the Virgin is currently appearing in Cork. In Britain last year the top-selling tabloid (the Sun) sent Uri Geller up in helicopter to beam his psychic forces down on Britain, the royal family sets an example for the rest of the population by publicly believing in homeopathy, and mediums appearing on talk shows to debate the reality of their powers are routinely confronted not by skeptics, but by clergymen convinced that their contact with the dead is inspired by the devil.

We'are working on it.

Wendy M.Grossman is founder and former editor of The British & Irish Skeptic, and a writer and folksinger. Subscriptions to The British & Irish Skeptic cost IRL 10 per year (six issues) and are available from Box 20, Blackrock, co, Dublin, Ireland.


The University of Regensburg neither approves nor disapproves of the opinions expressed here. They are solely the responsibility of the person named below.

Gerald_Huber@r.maus.de

Last update: 8 July 1998