The revered astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan didn’t just give us “Cosmos,” the 1980 television series that brought the wonders of the universe to the masses. He also co-founded the organization now known as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). In doing so, he helped launch the contemporary skeptics movement — a largely secular movement that, as Sagan often put it, views science not just as a body of knowledge but as a way of thinking.
Although CSI wasn’t the world’s first skeptics organization, it is widely credited with raising the movement’s profile. CSI has published the bi-monthly Skeptical Inquirer since 1976, and, with the support of its parent organization, the Center for Inquiry (CFI), hosts an annual “CSIcon” conference that regularly draws several hundred attendees from around the world. In recent decades, CSI and CFI have become mainstays of a movement that counts some of the world’s best-known scientists, doctors, writers, and TV personalities among its ranks.
Over the past nine years, I’ve become a part of that movement. I’ve written articles for Skeptical Inquirer, presented at four CSIcons, and co-hosted CFI’s podcast, “Point of Inquiry” — in addition to working with several other skeptical organizations. I was drawn to the movement by its ethos of democratizing the pursuit of the bald-faced truth. At a time when large swaths of the public eschew the scientific consensus on issues like climate change, vaccines, and the safety of genetically modified foods, that pursuit is as important as ever.
Last October, however, I received a letter from CFI suggesting that “we part ways” and dismissing me from my role as co-host of Point of Inquiry. I believe the dismissal was a response to my outspoken views on CFI’s negligence toward matters of race and diversity — issues that the organization has often sidestepped in the past. If that is indeed the case, it sends a discouraging message. At a moment when racist pseudoscience is making a disturbing comeback, skeptics shouldn’t shy away from talking about race — and we can’t afford to overlook the white privilege among our own ranks.
The Center for Inquiry has frequently been criticized for its indifference to matters of race, diversity, and social justice. That indifference is reflected in its demographics. At the last three CSIcons, I was the only non-white presenter in the lineup. The Center’s 10-member board of directors includes just one non-white person and two women.
CFI’s 2016 merger with a charitable foundation led by Richard Dawkins, an author and biologist who has repeatedly come under fire for Islamophobic and misogynistic remarks, did little to burnish its reputation. (Recently, Dawkins has been widely criticized for suggesting that eugenics would “work in practice” in humans.) As author Sikivu Hutchinson put it in 2016, “CFI’s all-white board looks right at home with [the Dawkins Foundation’s] lily white board and staff.” (Y. Sherry Sheng, who was born in China, was appointed to CFI’s board later that year.)
At the last three CSIcons, I was the only non-white presenter in the lineup.
Meanwhile, scientific racism — the idea that there are biological differences between so-called races, often paired with a notion that the white race possesses superior intellect — has made a disturbing comeback, in tandem with the resurgence of white nationalist groups. This revival of racist pseudoscience has prompted widespread alarm in the scientific community, including a 2018 statement from the American Society of Human Genetics that denounced attempts to use genetics to “bolster bogus claims of white supremacy.”
Two years ago, in an inept attempt to address the issue, CFI published a special issue of Skeptical Inquirer: “A Skeptic’s Guide to Racism.” The issue, penned exclusively by white men, demonstrated CFI leadership’s woefully shallow grasp of how racism works. In an article on “critical thinking approaches to confronting racism,” the magazine’s deputy editor, Benjamin Radford, referenced the view of evolutionary psychologist and author Steven Pinker that “the overall historical trends for humanity are encouraging”— a view that has been criticized as glossing over the plights of the most marginalized people. Radford’s contribution to the special issue also seemed to ignore the elephant in CFI’s room: He made not even a passing mention of the staggering racial disparities within his own organization — and within the very pages of the publication he was writing for.
It wasn’t just that CFI’s leadership stumbled on matters of race; it often seemed to discourage any discussion of the topic at all. In an anonymous 2019 letter addressed to CFI’s Board of Directors, nine CFI staff members and associates expressed concerns about the conduct and views of CEO Robyn Blumner, including what they saw as her unwillingness to substantively address race and the lack of diversity within the organization itself. “[Blumner] declares loudly and regularly that issues surrounding harmful inequalities of race, gender, and class in our country’s premier scientific institutions should not be discussed on any platform or in any forum in which CFI is involved,” the letter read, adding that “in the absence of authority to meaningfully contribute to these important conversations … CFI staff are experiencing escalating difficulty in building rapport and trust with potential supporters, which undermines our ability to advance CFI’s mission.” (I provided input into the drafting of the letter, at the authors’ request.)
It wasn’t just that CFI’s leadership stumbled on matters of race; it often seemed to discourage any discussion of the topic at all.
The Board’s response revealed a stunted view of the issues it purports to hold dear. CFI’s core mission is “the challenging of pseudoscience both in general and in its role in the making of public policy,” the Board wrote. “Where issues are the direct product of religious or pseudoscientific prejudice, such as LGBTQ rights, reproductive health, and climate change denial, CFI has a public role to play,” it added, omitting any mention of racial injustices fed by racist pseudoscience.
Last September, CFI announced that the newest member of its board would be yet another white person, actor and Saturday Night Live alumna Julia Sweeney. Disappointed, I reached out to board member Leonard Tramiel, whom I’d regularly interacted with. “You elected another white person to the board? Really?” I wrote. “Yup,” Tramiel replied. “Finding people that want to serve on the board and have the appropriate qualifications isn’t easy.”
Tramiel’s statement, and like-minded remarks from another board member, shattered any illusions I’d held that CFI cares about the bald-faced truth. Dismissing the board’s overwhelming whiteness as a function of qualifications is far easier than grappling with CFI’s race problem, but the most disturbing truths aren’t supposed to be easy to contend with.
By that time, I had challenged CFI on its apathy toward diversity several times over the years — through face-to-face conversations, Facebook posts, email correspondence with executives, and even a phone conversation with Blumner and the executive director of CSI, Barry Karr. I voiced my displeasure again, in two Facebook posts, during the days following Sweeney’s appointment. Six weeks later, CFI dismissed me from my role as co-host of Point of Inquiry. “In light of the dissatisfaction you have expressed in your ongoing relationship with the Center for Inquiry and the organization’s dissatisfaction with its ongoing relationship with you, it is in both our interests that we part ways,” the organization wrote.
The most disturbing truths aren’t supposed to be easy to contend with.
Despite my differences with CFI, I still believe that the skeptics movement can be a force against white supremacy. Done well, skepticism is “nothing very esoteric” yet a “burden” — as Sagan put it — of arming ourselves with the “elementary intellectual tools to ask searching questions of those nominally in charge.” Questions pertaining to race shouldn’t be an exception to that rule. If we skeptics refuse to contextualize issues in terms of race and other demographics, it will only hinder our efforts to address other forms of pseudoscience. For instance, underlying some groups’ distrust of the medical establishment is a fraught history of racial, gender, and class disparities. Acknowledging that history is essential to changing attitudes toward vaccines — a cause that CFI and the broader skeptics community have championed for years. Indeed, the exploitation of racial minorities’ anxieties by anti-vaccine groups has become a matter of growing concern.
Racism is among the most pressing pseudoscientific threats of our time. But it can be deceptive, masquerading as mere inquisitiveness and even helplessness. The most insidious white supremacy doesn’t carry tiki torches of festering hatred. It comes from well-meaning people who nevertheless uphold power structures with whiteness at the top. It’s woven into the very fabric of America and its institutions.
Tackling these issues of race, diversity, and inclusion is hard, but worthwhile. And if legacy organizations like CFI refuse to confront these issues — both outwardly and within their own ranks — it’s reassuring to know that there’s a growing global community of skeptics who have shown willingness to heed the call. For the sake of the longevity of the skeptics movement, it is crucial that they — that we — succeed.
Kavin Senapathy is a freelance writer who covers science, health, parenting, and food, based in Madison, Wisconsin. She’s also co-founder and contributing editor at SciMoms.com. Find her on Twitter @ksenapathy.