THE EARLY HISTORY OF ASKE
This short article on The Association for Skeptical Enquiry was written by Wayne Spencer soon after ASKE had come into existence. Wayne was a co-founder of ASKE and former editor of the Skeptical Intelligencer.
It appears that organised skepticism has a long history in the United Kingdom. For example, Abracadabra, a recent exhibition at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in London included a small exhibit made up of a cracked mirror and a plaster model of a coffin. According to the exhibition catalogue (Arnold, Baldwin and Mack, 1996: 50):.
"The coffin is inscribed 'to the memory of many senseless superstitions killed by the London Thirteen Club. 1894'. The club, based in Southwark, London, was active in combating magic. A founding member was a local councillor, R W Bowers. For some, ridding the world of magic turned into something of a moral crusade."
In more recent times, a number of skeptical associations and groups have been founded. These include the London Student Skeptics (now defunct), the Manchester Skeptics (now defunct), the Wessex Skeptics (now apparently largely inactive) and the UK Skeptics (a small, closed group which seems to serve mainly as a media resource). However, to the best of my knowledge, the Association for Skeptical Enquiry (ASKE) is the first national organisation in the United Kingdom open to all who share a commitment to the basic tenets of skeptical enquiry.
The idea of the association that eventually became ASKE was first mooted by Tony Youens and myself. Following a notice in the British magazine Skeptic, we were soon joined by around another 15 skeptics who were as dissatisfied as we were at the isolation and inactivity to which many persons of skeptical views have previously been condemned in this country. ASKE itself was launched in June 1997. It currently has just over 70 members, made up of men and women from many fields and walks of life. As well as British residents, we currently have members in Italy, Malta and the United States.
The main purpose of ASKE is to stimulate creative and fruitful co-operation and discussion between its individual members. I am glad to say that we are now seeing the first signs of this. For example, several members of ASKE recently provided Kevin McClure (an ASKE member and the publisher of the newsletter Abduction Watch) with valuable assistance in his investigation of the claim that fluorescent marks seen when ultra violet (UV) light is shined on the skin are evidence of abduction by aliens. The full sorry saga can be read in Abduction Watch and McClure (1997). Suffice it to say that it transpires that fungal infections and other prosaic phenomena also give rise to fluorescence under UV light.
ASKE proposes to promote skeptical enquiry through a number of projects. In particular, we are currently exploring the possibility of producing and distributing a critical thinking pack (possibly complete with video) for use in schools, and holding a conference on skepticism in the first or second quarter of this year. We have also started producing a bi-monthly magazine called the Skeptical Intelligencer. Another goal we have in view is that of sponsoring a high-quality, peer-reviewed, academic journal of skeptical enquiry supported by an international editorial board of academic skeptics from diverse fields.
ASKE is keen to open lines of communication with other skeptical organisations around the world. As one step in this direction, we have now applied for membership of the European Council of Skeptical Organisations. We have also approached the German skeptics group, the GWUP. As a result of this initial contact, the GWUP has very kindly allowed us to use its server to operate an ASKE e-mail discussion group. We hope that in due course this may expand into a joint ASKE-GWUP, or even a Europe-wide, skeptical discussion facility.
We are under no illusion that it will be easy for ASKE to become a truly effective voice for skepticism in the United Kingdom. One difficulty we face is that a number of British skeptics appear to have reservations about ASKE. Some evidently consider that a national association is untenable or useless. Others seem to believe that the Skeptical Intelligencer is unwelcome competition for the Skeptic. We hope that in time we will be able to assuage all of these doubts. In our view, the work done by local and international skeptical organisations elsewhere in the world shows that there are benefits to association, and we hope that we can demonstrate these ourselves. As for our relations with the Skeptic, we have no wish whatsoever to harm the prospects of that publication. Most of the material in the three issues of the Skeptical Intelligencer published since our launch arose out of suggestions and discussions that would probably never have taken place had ASKE and its magazine not existed. We would thus suggest that far from competing for a stagnant supply, we are actually serving to enlarge the pool of skeptical literature. We see no reason to believe that there will not be enough to go around.
ASKE is at present still finding its feet. But we not inclined to be discouraged by difficulties, and we shall do whatever we can to promote the critical scrutiny of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims within the United Kingdom.
- Arnold Ken, Baldwin, Martha and Mack, John (1996) Abracadabra: The Magic of Medicine. London: Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine.
- McClure, Kevin (1997) Abductees in the Dark. Fortean Times, No. 106: 47.