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 convinced, though."
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 far."
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 audiences.
"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 "honored" accordingly.
"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." James "The Amazing" Randi will be this month's NCAS speaker Saturday, June 30, at 2 p.m. at the Thomas Jefferson Community Center, 3501 2nd Street S., Arlington. Free.
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 dues-paying members.
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. Skinner.
Write: "Skeptical Inquirer," Box 229, Buffalo, N.Y. 14215-0229.