* Originally by Sheppard Gordon * Originally dated 7 Jul 1993, 11:17 Doubting Thomases, On
* Originally by Sheppard Gordon
* Originally dated 7 Jul 1993, 11:17
<<<$11,000 could be yours if you take this dare - SG >>>>
Doubting Thomases, One & All; A Fun-Loving Congregation Of
Byline: Bill Sautter
THE WASHINGTON POST
Do you believe that the Air Force has a UFO stashed in a secret
hangar? That Elvis is alive and well in Cincinnati? That astrology
can be a useful tool for planning career moves? If so, the National
Capital Area Skeptics (NCAS) would like a word with you.
Skeptics, you see, are convinced that all the above is so much
hot air. Their specialty is debunking medical quacks, channelers,
Tarot card readers and other assorted mystics-often having lots of
fun along the way.
Punk magician Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller fame condenses
the expression "New Age"-referring to the belief in crystals, pyramid
power, spirit channeling and astrology, to one word: "Newage." "It
rhymes with sewage" quips Jillette." Local skeptics agree.
" `Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof' is a
favorite expression of ours," says NCAS president Chip Denman,
manager of the statistics laboratory at the University of Maryland
and a confirmed skeptic. "We hear astonishing stories about
paranormal events and people with psychic abilities all the time, but
they never seem to survive scientific analysis. We are willing to be
So willing, says Denman, that the group offers a $1,000 reward
to anyone who can demonstrate an ability to psychically read cards,
move objects telekinetically or perform other paranormal feats.
There's a catch: The challenger must agree to perform under
controlled conditions before the watchful eyes of NCAS advisers,
including professional magicians, physicists and other experts.
Finally, the would-be psychic must allow the results of the session
to be published in the "Skeptical Eye" newsletter-even if the
performance is a dud.
Has anyone stepped forward?
"One person-a woman who claims she can predict lottery
numbers-has agreed to be tested," says Denman. We devise the test
procedure, and if she can, in fact, do what she claims, the $1,000 is
hers. She'll also have the chance to receive considerably more from
James "The Amazing" Randi, the famous magician, who is one of our
consultants. Randi has a standing offer of $10,000 to anyone who can
prove he or she has paranormal powers. His money has been safe so
Denman says that professional magicians are vital to the
skeptical movement because they are familiar with the sleight-of-hand
and other fakery that psychic pretenders use to trick their
"Scientists are often the easiest to fool," says Denman.
"They're not used to having laboratory rats or amoebas trying to
trick them. It's sometimes difficult for them to accept that their
subjects are consciously attempting deception. But for magicians,
illusion is their stock-in-trade. They know what to look for and how
to look for it."
"It's important for us to distinguish between science and
pseudo-science for a number of reasons," says Denman. "It can be a
matter of life or death in some cases. Belief in faith healing is
especially dangerous because the victim, already deprived of medical
treatment, is led to believe that the disease is his or her own
fault-"If only I had more faith, I would get better," is the idea.
It's psychologically and physically devastating."
"We're concerned with the growth of cults, too," says Denman.
He says that while meditation can be beneficial, sometimes
individuals are encouraged to believe a guru is necessary "to help
them through their lives, that they can't make rational decisions on
their own." This, says Denman, is "an unhealthy concept."
Denman says even astrology "is dangerous in that people are led
to believe their destiny is determined not by their own actions, but
by some mystical force. Nancy Reagan wrote in her book that she felt
she could have prevented her husband from being shot-if only she had
interpreted the astrological signs correctly. Can you imagine her
guilt feelings? Besides, is it a good idea for the leader of the
free world to have his travels arranged on the basis of the position
of the stars?"
Though skeptics often skewer cherished beliefs, they are not
generally humorless ideologues. By definition, skeptics are willing
to accept unorthodox beliefs-provided those beliefs can be proven
beyond a reasonable doubt.
Professional magician Jamy Ian Swiss, who describes himself as
"an honest liar," is one confirmed skeptic with a finely tuned sense
of the absurd.
Swiss, a founder of the National Capital Area Skeptics, relates
an incident several months ago during which he participated in a
"channeling" session on a Washington-area radio station:
"This woman was supposedly in a trance and speaking with the
voice of a 6th-century Irish nobleman-but with an odd British-type
accent and using `thees' and `thous,' words that didn't come into the
language until much later. Callers were asking for opinions on all
kinds of problems, even for marital advice. Finally, I just yelled,
`Enough of this! Everyone out there! Go get a job! Get a life! If
you want marital advice, you'd be better off listening to Dr. Ruth.
She's almost as old, and at least her accent is real."
Philip J. Klass, contributing avionics editor for Aviation Week
& Space Technology magazine, and perhaps the nation's most serious
investigator of the UFO phenomenon, is another local skeptic who
hasn't lost his sense of humor. Despite decades of research, he has
yet to discover any evidence of extraterrestrials visiting Earth.
That's upsetting to True Believers, Klass says, and he has been
"I do resent being called a stooge for the CIA-that kind of
thing-by people convinced that the government is covering up
information on UFOs," says Klass. "But one thing I find very amusing
is a dart board I bought (at a convention of UFO buffs) a year or so
ago. It has a drawing of my face on it and the inscription: "The
Classy Dart Board" and "Have Your Fill of Fun," a play on my name,
but changed enough to avoid any legal problems. I guess that means
I've become famous."
National Capital Area Skeptics (NCAS) was founded in 1987 as a
nonprofit scientific and educational organization devoted to
promoting critical thinking and objective investigation of
fringe-science and paranormal claims from a scientific point of view.
It is one of 25 or so similar groups nationwide and boasts about 350
NCAS membership includes a subscription to the quarterly
"National Capital Area Skeptical Eye," as well as free or reduced
admission to all group events, which have included lectures and
demonstrations by James "The Amazing" Randi, Penn & Teller,
astronomer Carl Sagan and others. NCAS tries to hold one public
event each month.
The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the
Paranormal (CSICOP) is the nation's oldest and largest skeptics
organization. Its official quarterly journal, the "Skeptical
Inquirer," is $25 a year. Contributors include zoologist Stephen Jay
Gould, biochemist and author Isaac Asimov and psychologist B.F.
Write: "Skeptical Inquirer," Box 229, Buffalo, N.Y. 14215-0229.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank