By: David Bloomberg Debunkers focus on the fantastic, foolish and fake Foes can't rattle r
By: David Bloomberg
Debunkers focus on the fantastic, foolish and fake
Foes can't rattle reality-checkers
Byline: DOUG POKORSKI STAFF WRITER
The State Journal-Register Springfield, IL
When David Bloomberg founded the Rational Examination Association of
Lincoln Land two years ago, the last thing he expected was to find
himself on a TV talk show with a "grumpy little old lady" from
Nutley, N.J., screaming in his face.
That is exactly what did happen in January, when Bloomberg, chairman
of REALL, appeared on the Morton Downey Jr. program in Chicago, along
with three self-proclaimed psychics.
Bloomberg and Franklin Park detective Bruce Walstad, an expert on
fake fortune tellers and other scams, were there to provide an
opposing viewpoint to the alleged psychics. REALL is a nonprofit
educational and scientific organization dedicated to applying a
scientific approach to claims of the paranormal and fringe-science
The best known of the three psychics was a New Jersey woman named
Dorothy Allison, who has been featured on a number of national TV
programs. She claims to have helped police find more than 200 bodies
and solve a number of murders.
As luck would have it, Bloomberg had brought along a book, primarily
as a prop, that devoted an entire chapter to debunking Allison's
claims. When Allison started talking about her great success as a
crime-solver, Bloomberg responded by quoting a passage. He noted
that in the famous Atlanta child murders case, Allison had given
police 42 names of the possible killer, none of which were Wayne or
Williams. Wayne Williams was the name of the man convicted of the
"This apparently got (Allison) rather upset," Bloomberg said. "She
stood up out of her chair and started yelling in my face. . . . I
stood up also and yelled back at her. She responded by pushing me in
the shoulder. (Bloomberg shouted), `Don't push me, lady.' "
Just as two security guards were about to intervene, host Downey sat
both guests down and restored as much decorum as TV talk shows
While it's a far cry from the usual calm, reasoned approach REALL
typically takes to claims of the paranormal, Bloomberg said the
confrontation was an effective way of spreading the group's message
under the circumstances, and he considers it one of the high points
of the last two years of the organization's existence.
The fact that REALL survived to celebrate its second birthday in
February has also got to be considered a high point. Founded by
Bloomberg, Bob Ladendorf and Wally Hartshorn, REALL was not
necessarily a natural, given what it was up against.
After all, in this age of trash talk TV and tabloids blaring
headlines about UFOs, alien abductions, Elvis sightings and Abe
Lincoln being brought back to life, an organization aimed at
debunking the bogus and deflating the sensational might seem out of
But REALL's skeptical approach has found a core of supporters here in
the sane, solid heartland. Bloomberg said 45 to 50 people receive
the organization's monthly newsletter, edited by Ladendorf, and
monthly meetings draw an average of 15 to 20 attendees.
About half the membership is from central Illinois, including a
contingent from Champaign-Urbana. A growing number of members come
from the Chicago area, Bloomberg said.
Meetings have featured speakers on topics such as the Loch Ness
Monster and allegations of satanic ritual abuse. Walstad was one of
the group's early speakers, talking about fortune tellers and other
scams, and he is expected to make a return appearance this year. He
also writes for the newsletter.
Bloomberg, 26, an engineer for the Illinois Environmental Protection
Agency, said finding speakers with the right expertise is difficult
in a community the size of Springfield, and REALL cannot afford to
bring in many speakers from out of town.
He said a recent meeting at which Chicago author Matt Keenan spoke
represented the first time an outside speaker has made a special trip
to Springfield just to address REALL members.
Another high point of the past two years, Bloomberg said, was the
chance some members had to spend two hours over dinner with the
comedy team of Penn and Teller, in town for a performance at Sangamon
Bloomberg and six other REALL members found they had much in common
with the duo.
"They're ardent skeptics," Bloomberg said.
More mundane activities for Bloomberg in his role as REALL chairman
have involved responding to media reports that don't treat paranormal
and other questionable claims with a proper degree of skepticism.
For example, when Springfield's alternative weekly Illinois Times ran
a story last year that Bloomberg felt took a one-sided view in favor
of claims about repressed memory syndrome, a controversial belief
that has figured in a number of prominent legal cases, he fired off
letters both to the newspaper and the writer of the piece.
Subsequent IT stories were more balanced, Bloomberg said, and he
thinks his letters may have helped to promote less credulous coverage
of the issue.
Psychics and others proclaiming to have paranormal powers are prime
targets for REALL.
For example, when local psychic Greta Alexander was the featured
guest at a fund-raiser for unsuccessful Illinois Senate candidate
Ellen Schanzle-Haskins last year, the incident was fodder for
lampooning in the REALL newsletter. And when Penn and Teller were
told about the appearance, they responded with a resounding "Good!"
after learning that Schanzle-Haskins had been defeated.
"There has never been any scientific evidence of psychic powers,"
Bloomberg said. "There are definitely people out there fooling other
people, and there are definitely people out there fooling
The REALL newsletter includes thoughtful, and sometimes humorous,
articles from a variety of writers on topics such as sightings of
"pencil-necked aliens" and other UFO-related folderol. REALL also
tackles unproven pseudoscientific claims, such as alternative
therapies in medicine, efforts to force the teaching of creationism
in public schools and unsupported claims for food supplements.
Reaction to the group has been mixed, Bloomberg said. Someone at SSU
scrawled a message that REALL members are "a bunch of insecure
rationalists and atheists" on a REALL flier posted there.
Bloomberg said he doesn't see anything wrong with being rational, and
that the group includes people with a variety of religious beliefs,
including atheists as well as a clergyman.
Other responses have been positive, he said.
"People who understand what we are doing are generally pretty
positive, or neutral if they believe in that (paranormal) stuff," he
With several professional psychics operating in Springfield, the
prevalence of psychic hotlines advertising on TV, accounts of former
presidents being guided in their decisions by astrologers, and the
current occupants of the White House consulting with New Age gurus,
plus other indications that gullibility is alive and well in America,
Bloomberg said, he believes REALL will have plenty of work to do for
a long time.
And with the coming of the new millenium in a little less than five
years, he said he thinks there will be an increasing need for any
group that promotes rational thinking and skepticism toward claims of
The year 2000 is bound to bring with it all kinds of claims about the
coming end of the world or other great cataclysms. Bloomberg said he
anticipates the formation of "millennial cults" that will appeal to
the easily fooled.
"There are people who think that the year 2000 must mean something,"
he said. "It's a number. It's a number like any other."
Anyone interested in learning more about REALL can contact the
organization at P.O. Box 20302, Springfield, Ill. 62708.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank