A History of PhACT

by Tom Napier

On March 12, 1994, the international skeptics' organization then known as CSICOP (now the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) held a mini-conference at a hotel near Philadelphia International Airport.

This was not the first manifestation of organized skepticism in our area. Individual skeptics had been traveling to CSICOP conferences for years and in 1988 some of them founded the Delaware Valley Skeptics. This organization published a newsletter and held regular meetings but it lacked incisive leadership and fizzled out early in 1991.

It was evident to the 40 or 50 people who turned up at the CSICOP conference some three years later that we had the basis of a new local skeptics' organization. Names were gathered and when the founding committee met in Otto's Brauhaus on September 25th, 1994, it decided to form an organization to be named the "Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking." This name had the advantage of having an apt acronym, PhACT.

Those who had been members of the earlier group had learned from that experience. Before throwing open the gates of PhACT to the skeptical public we held a series of committee meetings to thrash out PhACT's aims and policies and who would do what.

One issue that had to be settled was whether PhACT should be a pro-science organization or an anti-religion one. With one vocal exception we decided that our mission was to encourage rational thought and the use of scientific principles. How people might apply these to their beliefs was left to them. Besides, the Philadelphia area already had an outspoken atheist group; we had no wish to compete with them.

Our terms of reference included the investigation of pseudoscientific or paranormal claims and the promulgation of our findings. PhACT was intended to be an active, hands-on, experimental group. We had a pool of professional expertise adequate to plan and execute credible tests. We would leave debating the finer points of the philosophy of science to others.

Getting started

About 700 people in the Greater Philadelphia area subscribed to the Skeptical Inquirer, the CSICOP magazine. Early in 1995 CSICOP kindly allowed us to mail them a flier announcing the formation of PhACT. Those who responded were sent the first issue of our newsletter, Phactum, and formed the core from which our membership grew.

Activities

As well as circulating a bi-monthly newsletter, we agreed to hold regular speaker meetings. When funds permitted we would invite well-known skeptics to talk to us. Otherwise we drew our speakers from our membership or from local academics and authors of skeptical books who could be induced to speak for a minor honorarium. Since suitable speakers were otherwise occupied in the summer months we found a range of other activities. We have held semi-serious field trips to places with alleged paranormal associations as well as completely non-serious annual picnics.

We used to have a lunch meeting with a speaker each April or May. In 2011 we accidentally picked the same date that Harold Camping was noisily predicting would be the end of the world. Gobbling lunch before the world ended was a bit much for us; these lunches have since been supplanted by field trips.

Our speakers

PhACT's first speaker meeting was held in September, 1995, almost exactly a year after the founding meeting. We rented a room in a Bensalem restaurant and heard from local expert, Joseph Szimhart, who talked on cults and pseudoscience. The following month we moved to the Bensalem branch of the Bucks County Library. This had the joint advantages of being both quieter and free. On that occasion our speaker was physicist, PhACT member and author, Milton Rothman, who spoke on "How to tell what is possible and what is impossible." This is a useful ability for a would-be skeptic. Another early speaker, and our first import from outside the area, was Philip Klass, the nationally known expert on UFOs. He was followed a few months later by James (The Amazing) Randi who was in town to supervise PhACT's first serious test of paranormal powers.

Other notable speakers have included: Stephen Barrett, the originator of Quackwatch; Joe Nickell, the chief investigator of CSI; Judge John Jones, who declared "Intelligent Design" to be religion, not science; Bob Park, gadfly and author; Ted Daeschler, discoverer of the fossil Tiktaalik, the fish that could walk; Faye Flam, journalist and author.

On a few occasions PhACT has invited non-skeptics to talk to us. Our hope was that they would present evidence for their strange (to skeptics) beliefs. With one exception, they used the opportunity to berate skeptics for not sharing their beliefs without evidence. We offered outreach; all we learned from these experiences was not to waste our time.

Since October, 2001, PhACT's speaker meetings have been held in Center City, in an auditorium provided by the Community College of Philadelphia, courtesy of Dr. David Cattell to whom we own a great debt.

Testing the paranormal

Although PhACT's remit includes testing people who claim paranormal abilities, we rarely get the chance to do so. Those who daily offer their services to paying customers are singularly unwilling to demonstrate their abilities to skeptics, even when awards as large as James Randi's million dollars are available for a successful demonstration.

An alternative was to do the research at second hand. In 1996 Bill Wisdom and Ken Barnes asked 175 local police departments what their experience had been in using psychics to solve crimes. Their conclusion, "We found absolutely no evidence of a psychic actually advancing a police investigation."

About the time PhACT was founded, so-called "Therapeutic Touch" started being taught and used in some local hospitals. This is the healing process in which trained practitioners sense and adjust the "Human Energy Field" of a patient by waving their hands about and charging some $75 an hour. There being some 40,000 TT practitioners nation-wide we felt it would be easy to get some to submit to scientific testing, particularly with the Randi $1,000,000 award up for grabs.

Despite much effort we only found one subject. We decided not to tackle the issue of whether patients became better with TT treatment. This would have involved a large-scale experiment performed under the aegis of a teaching hospital. Our experiment, supervised by James Randi in person, required only that our subject sense the difference between two people' s energy fields, one healthy and one with a wrist injury. This our subject asserted she could do easily. Unfortunately, under proper double-blinded conditions she did no better than guessing.

A report on this experiment appeared as "Therapeutic Touch: Investigation of a Practitioner" by Bob Glickman, RN and Ed J. Gracely, PhD, in The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, May 1998. We didn't "disprove" TT but we did demonstrate that a professional therapist couldn't detect the human energy field that is, supposedly, the sine qua non of Therapeutic Touch.

One experiment deserves mention for its chutzpah. In 2002, Katharine Merow, then a senior at Germantown Academy, paid PhACT-sponsored visits to five psychics to inquire about her mysterious missing sibling. All of the psychics provided detailed (but contradictory) information about a dead child who had, in fact, never existed.

Scientific outreach

PhACT has made a practice of providing presentations on critical thinking at local events. An early effort was a panel discussion at the 1999 PhilCon, the local science fiction convention.

The following year American Mensa held its Annual Gathering in Philadelphia. Our three-person panel explained scientific skepticism and fielded endless questions from the massed intelligences of America.

In 2001 PhACT had a booth at the Pennsylvania Science Teachers' Association convention in Hershey. A common comment from teachers, on being given back issues of the Skeptical Inquirer was, "I'd no idea all this stuff was available." Although they were teaching critical thinking, they were unaware of many of the resources out there.

PhACT and its donors have sponsored special awards at local science fairs. Prizes go to exhibitors who show awareness of scientific principles and a critical approach to their results.

Recently, PhACT has participated in the annual Philadelphia Science Festival sponsored by the Franklin Institute. One of PhACT's successes was to arrange for James Randi to make a return visit to Philadelphia. He addressed a packed auditorium of his Philadelphia fans during the 2013 Festival. In 2014 PhACT sponsored a similar presentation by Michael Shermer, the founder of the Skeptics Society.

Individual members have featured on local radio and TV, spreading PhACT's message and challenging ideas such as "free energy." Today one can reach others without moving from one's computer. Many odd devices and concepts are promoted on the Internet. While the paranormal generally must be studied on a case-by-case basis, scientifically shaky ideas can usually be analyzed and shown to be faulty based on general principles. Then the question becomes, is the promoter merely ignorant or a deliberate fraudster?

Free energy

One evergreen pseudoscientific concept is the "free energy" mentioned above. This is the idea, known for hundreds of years as "perpetual motion," that energy needn't come from some finite source such as burning oil. With the right mechanical or electrical device one can generate an output of energy which exceeds any input that the device may need. This will solve the energy crisis, reverse global warming and make early investors very rich. As such a device infringes on the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, one can be fairly sure it isn't going to work no matter how much hand-waving is done. It may, however, make its inventor rich if enough people fall for it.

One of PhACT's early field trips was to a public free-energy presentation in Philadelphia in 1996. The presenter was selling dealerships for a device which, he claimed, would produce free electricity by driving a generator from a heat pump. Unfortunately, anyone with the slightest knowledge of thermodynamics can show the flaw in this reasoning. PhACT's past president, Eric Krieg, was so appalled that he immediately started an Internet outreach to explain this to potential investors and to various State Attorneys General. Over a period of some years this put a distinct crimp in the free energy business. It ultimately got Eric sued, luckily to no effect.

Another twenty?

As of this writing (2014), we celebrate PhACT's twenty years of continued existence. All things considered this is a major achievement. It owes much to the handful of people whose enthusiasm for skeptical activism has kept it going and to its pool of members who keep reading Phactum, keep coming to meetings and even occasionally remember to pay their annual subscriptions.

We are particularly grateful to the handful of supporters who have made the substantial donations which have allowed us to present many of our more noteworthy speakers. Perhaps PhACT is not as large or as prominent as we once expected it would be but it is in a fair state to continue educating its members and the public for another twenty years.


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