James Underdown has been the executive director of The Center for Inquiry (CFI) Los Angeles since 1999. The Center for Inquiry is a non-profit educational organisation with headquarters in Amherst, NY, whose primary mission is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. CFI Los Angeles is the largest branch in the organisation outside Amherst.
Underdown founded the Independent Investigations Group IIG, a volunteer-based organisation, in January 2000 at the Center for Inquiry-West (now Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles) in Hollywood, California. The IIG investigates fringe science, paranormal and extraordinary claims from a rational, scientific viewpoint, and disseminates factual information about such inquiries to the public.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: In brief, what is your family story?
I was born in Chicago. I have a sister a year younger than I. We grew up in Wheaton, IL, with both our parents. My mother’s side of the family are 2nd generation Italian and Catholic, generally. My father (now deceased) was an atheist, but agreed to raise my sister and me Catholic.
What about your personal story?
I’ve been very lucky and have had a good life so far. Was able to attend pretty good schools all the way through college and have always been able to find employment. I’ve had over 40 jobs in my life, though I’ve never been fired. (e.g. truck driver, teacher, stand-up comic, hotel clerk, football coach, warehouse manager, roadie, limo driver, traffic school teacher, carpenter, singer, executive director at the Center for Inquiry – just to name a few.)
Married (2nd time) for 9+ years with no kids.
What are your religious/irreligious, ethical, and political beliefs?
I am a secular humanist, which is an atheist with certain ethical principles. (Atheism doesn’t address ethics, merely belief – or lack thereof.)
I consider myself Liberal and left for most issues, but don’t feel locked into what any group thinks.
How did you become an investigator and activist-sceptic?
I left Catholicism at an early age (10?) because they told stories (think miracles) that didn’t sound true and couldn’t answer simple questions about those stories.
Even though I liked science, I still held some mild beliefs about paranormal abilities, alien visitation, and weird phenomena when I was in my teens. When I discovered Skeptical Inquirer magazine and started reading the solid, science-based explanations for what people were experiencing, my paranormal beliefs dried up. The SI explanations were more interesting than the stories, I thought. Still do!
L.A. is a hotbed of wacky beliefs, so when I took the Executive Director job at CFI in 1999, I decided to create (what we eventually called) the Independent Investigations Group so more of us could get some first-hand, up-close looks at paranormal claims and claimants. Soon after, we started offering cash prizes (a ’la James “The Amazing” Randi) to anyone who could prove such ability.
There were very few people doing testing and investigations then.
Were parents or siblings an influence on this for you?
Probably not directly, but my father was never afraid to argue a minority point of view about any idea, and both parents seemed to give my sister and me a fair amount of rope when it came to doing what interested us. So the door was open to explore interests in our family.
My mother still has difficulty explained to people what I do. ☺
Did you have early partnerships in this activist pursuit? If so, whom?
There were and are like-minded people who are integral to all the work we do, but no individuals that affected my path.
Do you consider yourself a progressive?
Yes, if I understand the definition correctly as being one who favours social reform.
Does progressivism logically imply other beliefs, or tend to or even not at all?
There may be some correlation between progressivism and certain beliefs, but I think it’s more about being open to change, and that means one must be willing to look hard at both the current world and what led to that world. It also means being willing to challenge the status quo and one’s own positions. These are all signs of an active intellect.
How did you come to adopt a socially progressive worldview?
Here’s where my parents had an influence on me. My father was a social worker who understood how people’s environments and genetics steered them. My mother was not afraid to disagree with her church, friends or family. They both got along with people well, but thought for themselves.
My own life has been full of people, places, and experiences that have rounded out my worldview. I’ve been to 5 of the 7 continents and circulated among people who range from homeless to CEOs of large businesses. Being exposed to such variety helps me see the world in gray tones instead of black and white.
Why do you think that adopting a social progressive outlook is important?
Clinging to past ways is not how humans have improved their lot. Seeing other people’s perspectives, and constantly reassessing what we do to and for each other is how we make life better – for everyone.
As a progressive, what do you think is the best socio-political position to adopt in the America?
I kind of like Churchill’s quote, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
I don’t think I could put a label on my position. People should work if they can, and we should help those who can’t. Societies should have safety nets so no one suffers too badly as long as there are billionaires. People should be treated fairly and accorded as much respect, freedom, and opportunity as possible. These are generalities, I know, but maybe some sort of starting point.
What big obstacles (if at all) do you see social-progressive movements facing at the moment?
Polarisation and misinformation.
Certain news outlets (like FOX) seem hell-bent on keeping their audience angry, and afraid. They portray opposing ideas as attacks trying to destroy decent God-fearing Americans. We seem to have lost the ability to find common ground between well-meaning citizens and to work through disagreements.
There seems to be few gating mechanisms to spreading false information. Does anyone care about being accurate?
Average people seem to think they have mastered enough science, economics, and climate to jaw-flap at length about such complex fields. It’s disturbing.
How important do you think social movements are?
Very. It takes large numbers in a society to wake people up and change wrongs. Some change won’t happen quietly. Some injustice must be exposed and squeezed out in a public way.
You represent the Council for Secular Humanism. What is the national state of secular humanism as a philosophy and a movement in the United States?
The poll numbers suggest we’re making progress. More and more people every year are openly living their lives without religion, and young people are identifying as secular in extraordinary numbers.
But the country is still not ready to elect an atheist president, tax the churches, or take God off the money. We are making headway, though! I wish I could see what things look like in a century or two.
Do secular humanists experience bigotry and prejudice at all levels of American society?
People who live in urban, progressive areas probably aren’t encountering too much bigotry – at least not active bigotry. We still have to endure civic prayer, God references, and make up for the taxes churches don’t pay.
The secular folks in the bible belts (there are many) are another story. Many must maintain a low profile or risk being ostracised. One’s business success or career track might depend on some serious discretion when it comes to revealing religious beliefs.
Evangelical Christians and fundamentalists in other religions are constantly being told that secular folk are anything from God-haters to Satan-lovers. (We don’t believe in either!) The Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells in their world have poisoned minds about their neighbors. Most of us are likeable…I think.
Since 1999, you have been the Executive Director of Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles (CFI-LA). What tasks and responsibilities come with this station?
My responsibilities span from making sure the building and office are in working order to bringing critical thinking to my fellow human beings. We specialise in religion, philosophy, and scepticism and bring a science and evidence-based perspective to issues under those headings.
I get to represent those perspectives everywhere from network TV (Dr. Phil, Oprah, Hannity & Colmes) to a comparative religion class at Ontario Christian High School. I am a free-range evangelist for critical thinking.
You wrote for Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer. What is the importance of these magazines to scepticism?
Ok, I am biased, but I think these magazines are the top of the line resources for great information in the arenas of secular humanism and scepticism. Our editors Tom Flynn (FI) and Ken Frazier (SI) get great talent to contribute to these publications. I always learn something new from reading them – even after years in the business!
You are the Founder and Chairman of the Independent Investigations Group (IIG) in Hollywood, California. What are some of its more notable investigations into the legitimacy of paranormal claims?
We found pseudo-science being taught to California nurses. We’ve tested psychics, telepaths, dowsers, fortune tellers and telekinetics. We learned how TV mediums John Edward and James Van Praagh appear to converse with the spirits of dead people. We’ve investigated ghosts, UFOs, athletic enhancement devices, perpetual motion, and dozens of other claims.
Just for the record, we’ve found zero evidence that the paranormal exists. ZERO.
What demarcates real science from pseudo-science, non-science, and bad science?
I’m not sure I’m qualified to say what good science is, but here goes: Good science is peer reviewed, checked and double checked. It is replicable, transparent, and falsifiable. Good science withstands criticism from those most knowledgeable about the claim, and often enjoys a clear consensus of experts in the field. Good science is evidence-based and is provisionally thought to be the best current explanation until – if and when – better evidence comes along.
Science is both knowledge and process. Knowledge about the natural world through empirical methodologies. Process to attain empirical knowledge. What is the best way to teach both of these at the same time – because science can be seen as the Periodic Table of Elements, the names of species, the names of minerals, the traits of different astronomical bodies, and so on, alone?
Yes, science has accumulated great gobs of knowledge over the last few centuries, but it’s the process part that carries over to other areas. Once we learn the best proven ways to get reliable information, we can point those methods at any question and know that we’ve done our best to get a good answer.
What is your favourite scientific discovery ever?
The expanding universe and all the exoplanets are pretty mind-blowing. Let’s find some life out there!
What is your favourite debunked pseudo-science?
I find the cryptids – Bigfoot, Loch Ness monster, Chupacabra, etc. – kind of funny. I hate to see people waste their money on psychics and alternative medicines or faith healers. They’re all debunked, by the way. ☺
You offer 100,000 USD prize through IIG. Has anyone ever won it?
Not even close.
Who has been the closest?
Once during a rehearsal for a test, one of our people guessed a bunch of Zener cards correctly, but it was a fluke. His final score was average, though he scored real well early in the test.
What was their failure?
What is your current work?
Teaching others to test and investigate.
Where do you hope it goes into the future?
A serious reduction in the belief in things that are apparently not true. Is that too much to ask?
Thank you for your time, James.