Skeptical Inquirer--any good?

I just got this junk-mail advertisement for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. It sounds kind of interesting, but I have never read it before, and I wanted to get some opinions from those of you out there who have read it before I decide to subscribe.

My husband thought that the magazine “sounds stupid”. In his words, “We already know that most of that stuff [paranormal phenomena] is a bunch of crap.” Does the magazine just try to reassure us that paranormal phenomena are “a bunch of crap”, or are the articles more thought-provoking? Is this magazine worth reading?

<counts down the seconds, waiting for DavidB to show up>

Yeah, it is “any good”, but as could be expected, it has limitations resulting from its single-minded viewpoint.

I like the reminder to apply tests of logic and reason to claims of phenomena.

IMO some of the articles seem like potshots at obvious targets, and others are somewhat contrived (Hmm, can’t explain it? Must be another of them masonic conspiracies.) The quality tends to be somewhat uneven - some of the articles, especially the brief “reviews” in the front, seem to be roughly sketched filler.

But it does contain some gems, such as the lengthy dialogue on science and faith. It seems to be pretty current, timely addressing most of the major issues of the type it covers. And the letters section is often as interesting as the articles.

I haven’t looked at the magazine in a while or in great detail, but I used to covertly read this magazine when I’d caught up with my duties at my old library job. It’s interesting for sure, but I agree that it’s a bit single-minded… Some of the authors seem so closed-minded that they actually look more foolish than some of the people who believe in various paranormal phenomena. For instance, I don’t think that just saying “it’s just sleep paralysis. And craziness. That’s all” is really more convincing than loads of reports from supposed UFO abductees. You might see if your library has it so you can see if it’s for you before your subscribe. It’s definitely not a crummy publication, though, and I’m surprised they spammed you.

I’ve been a subscribed to SI for almost 15 years now, and I’ve followed the writings of some of its regular contributors (Martin Gardner, James Randi/Randall Zwinge) for a LOT longer.

I love the magazine, and usually devour it as soon as I get it. The articles are generally much more in-depth than the comments above on this thread would lead you to believe. They have a tendency to put in at least one very long general article on beliefs per issue that is pretty boring, but the exposes on particular events or phenomena are really worth reading (I like Joe Nickell’s regular contributions).

They have a website that’s worth having a look at if you’re trying to decide whether or not to subscribe.

I have very rarely disagreed with the interpretations I’ve read in SI, but on the whole I’ve been impressed.

I was a regular subscriber to SI until Mar 1999, and have every copy (from Fall 1976) up to that date.

Good points: for many years of its existence it was the only source for consistent, well-informed sceptical coverage of many paranormal and pseudo-scientific topics. It has attracted many excellent writers and contributors (see list by CalMeacham) and I often found it to be a good repository of factual information that you just don’t find anywhere else.

I think you might find that its coverage is broader than you think, and encompasses a lot more than ‘paranormal crap’. The whole point, really, is that it’s not enough to just be dismissive of ‘paranormal’ claims - SI has a good track record for serving up the facts, research and studies that show precisely why such and such a claim carries no weight, and for running solid refutations of current claims. It has impeccable academic credentials and provides comprehensive cites and references for just about everything you find within its pages.

It can also move fast to deal with ‘hot’ stories - its response to the alien autopsy video was memorably rapid and comprehensive.

Bad points: it’s just my humble opinion, but I think its tone can, at times, get a little dry and dusty; sometimes it carries pint articles on subjects that scream for at least a gallon of coverage; and I agree with some other posters that from time to time it fails to be as impartial and fair as it strives to be.

I agree with Space Vampire that a good first step might be to find a selection of back issues (either in a public library or, more probably, in an academic one) and see what you think.

IMHO, ‘Skeptic’ magazine, published by the Skeptic Society ( serves the same objectives more succesfully. I feel it has longer, better articles, is much more impartial and better at providing room for opposing views to be presented, covers a broader range of subjects, and has a more likeable tone. But I guess that comes down to personal taste.

You can find information on SI, as well as the text of some articles, at:

I find that the articles vary widely in how interesting or objectively written they are. Lately they seem to be scraping the bottom of the skepticism barrel and writing on more and more obscure and silly things (e.g., “Can We Tell When Someone Is Staring At Us?”).

Better yet, for an outstanding treatment of the topic of skepticism, see Carl Sagan’s book, “The Demon-Haunted World.” It’s one of the most thought-provoking things I’ve ever read.

The topic of that article is the very reason I came to the Straight Dope MB- I was looking for opinions on Rupert Sheldrake’s research into such claims and somehow this site came up on Google. Eventually I found that article online, and my new favorite message board.

See, a friend of mine who is otherwise highly intelligent, has degrees in philosophy and biology, etc. told me about Sheldrake’s research on dogs’ supernatural ability to know when their owners are coming home. I laughed, because the idea of wasting money testing this theory is pretty stupid to me, outside of maybe being a good gag in a Ghostbusters sequel, and she was visibly offended. So I looked into it online, because I was wondering if I was just being a jerk or what.

The two useful hits were Skeptic and Straight Dope… an article describing Sheldrake’s flawed methodology in testing the theory that “people know when they are being stared at” which told me all I needed to know about his credibility, and a good discussion board for people with a Skeptical bent.

It still makes me chuckle…

“Well, research to date shows pretty conclusively that humans have no psychic abilities.”

“What about dogs though?”



Hi there hazel-rah. I’m glad you found some useful stuff online concerning Sheldrake.

Just by way of a little additional background, I once took part in a TV show (here in London) about the paranormal, knowing that Sheldrake was also one of the featured guests. When I got there I was mingling with the other people appearing on the show, and asked a young woman why she was involved. Turns out that she owned the dog that had been the subject of Sheldrake’s ‘psychic dog knows when owner sets off home’ research. She was totally in the Sheldrake camp, and was there as Sheldrake’s guest to back him up.

Sheldrake is a very pleasant, if rather intense, sort of man to meet. I didn’t get on terribly well him because he always wants to extrapolate wildly into the future of maybe. What I mean is, it’s one thing to say “Mmm, interesting experimental idea, let’s wait and see what happens when other people try to replicate your results”. It’s quite another to say “I did this experment and if these findings are true…” and then spend 30 minutes talking about the wonders of life in the next century, when we have all ‘developed’ our amazing paranormal potential, forgetting that little word “if”.

I also know Richard Wiseman, the parapsychologist who investigated Sheldrake’s psychc dog for a separate TV show. Wiseman re-ran the experiment and found no evidence to support Sheldrake’s claim.

Essentially, it comes down to selective interpretation of data. But the sources you found on line probably tell you more than I could.

Do any of you read 21[sup]st[/sup] Century Science and Technology or E.I.R.?

Guess what?

The folks at Skeptical Inquirer also sent me a line.

Interesting enough, the theocons at First Things are also asking for me to subscribe to them.


I’ve enjoyed reading the Skeptical Inquirer (I even sort-of wrote a piece for them once), and the Inquirer CAN be a very valuable and enjoyable publication. It’s well worth picking up from time to time, especially if you see that the current issue deals with an interesting subject.

On the other hand, I’d never subscribe to it. The quality varies drastically from issue to issue. Far too often, they’ll devote an entire issue to an obscure subject that barely merits all the attention. Just as often, they start their investigations of any phenomenon with a presumption of fraudulence, and then start piling on.


  1. When James Randi exposes phony Christian “faith healers” who take advantage of the sick and elderly, I applaud him. On the other hand, when he tears into the likes of Doug Henning and David Blaine (who, as far as I know, NEVER pretended to be anything but entertainers), I have to wonder “What’s your problem?”

  2. Disclaimer: I am NOT a physicist, have NO expertise in physics, and have NO qualifications for offering an opinion on whther cold fusion is possible. As I understand it, some physicists feel certain it can be done, most seem to think it can’t, and ALMOST all are sure it has never yet been done (despite a few claims of success in this area).

    The Skeptical Inquirer has tended to treat the concept of cold fusion the way it treats faith healing. It would be one thing if they stuck to debunking frivolous and false claims of success in cold fusion (frauds in EVERY field, from religion to physics, deserve to be exposed). It’s quite another to treat every scientist with a difference of opinion as a quack. I happen to think the Inquirer is far too quick to condemn those who don’t toe their line as a fraud or a dupe.

The Skeptical Inquirer’s biggest problem is utter lack of perspective… and no sense of humor. TWO biggest problems. Lack of perspective, no sense of humor, and a tendency to beat a dead horse. THREE biggest problems…

As I said earlier, if you see it on the rack at Barnes & Noble or wherever, glance at the cover. If the topics interest you, buy it. It’s a good investment.

You mean this article tearing into Henning?

The article quite liked his actual magic, it was attacking Transcendental Meditation. A religion, in my opinion, with about as much credibility and money making potential as Scientology.

I wasn’t able to find any articles getting after David Blaine, which I would find hard to believe exist. To my knowledge he has never claimed to be anything more then a magician.

Heck, Randi is a magician. If your claims were correct, there’d be an expose of Houdini, Randi, and Penn & Teller next.

I am yet another long-time subscriber to SI who looks forward avidly to each issue and reads each one immediately, with great enjoyment - but notices an occasional tendency toward shrillness and a tendency to revert to the same topics over and over and over.

I would agree that they sometimes “beat a dead horse,” but you know, in the world of psychic phenomena, many tired old jades that should be long dead just keep coming back. Take the crop circles “phenomenon.” The wags who made the original circles (and other designs) have admitted to making them and creating the hoax for fun, and they even had films made showing them making a very elaborate design in much less time than you’d think possible. But True Believers STILL insist that crop circles are of supernatural origin. SI is a pretty good way to keep abreast of which established phenomena are hot at the moment, as well as those emerging at the cutting edge of looniness.

You tell 'em, kyber. I believe on Randi’s own site recently he congratulated Blaine on the “ice block” trick, a trick Randi himself had performed (for a much shorter duration) decades ago. I do sometimes find Randi overly aggressive (for instance, his long-running fued with Uri Geller led him to a heavy-handed attack of Geller’s suit against the creators of Pokemon. That was a case where a bemused chuckle would probably have been more effective) but I have great respect for Randi’s willingness to confront psuedo-science in all of its myriad forms.

I find Skeptical Inquirer to be occassionally flawed, but whenever I have allowed my subscription to lapse I find myself grabbing issues off the rack anyway. Like all publications, SI has an agenda. Unlike most, it is extremely upfront and clear about its agenda.

Are you serious?! Uri Geller actually sued the creators of Pokemon because they have psychic Pokemon that bend spoons? On what grounds could he base that; that bending spoons was a registered trademark of Uri Geller, Inc.? I find it hard to believe the judge wouldn’t have simply laughed this case out of court.