By: David Bloomberg Debunkers focus on the fantastic, foolish and fake Foes can't rattle r

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By: David Bloomberg Debunkers focus on the fantastic, foolish and fake Foes can't rattle reality-checkers Byline: DOUG POKORSKI STAFF WRITER 04/03/95 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 phenomena. 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 crimes. "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 normally have. 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 its element. 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 State University. 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 themselves." 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 said. 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 paranormal. 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.


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