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A Skeptical View : Doubting Academics Waging a Flamboyant Battle to Debunk Society's Fascination With Popular Theories

April 21, 1985|BOB BAKER | Times Staff Writer

It looked like any other demonstration of fire walking, the increasingly popular phenomenon in which people in search of self-confidence pay up to $125 to learn the body posture and mental techniques ostensibly needed to walk safely across a bed of embers.

Nearly a thousand spectators waited in a college athletic field's bleachers as large pieces of oak were burned, spread in an eight-foot-long path and measured at 1,200 degrees. Then the program's two leaders, who would be the first to fire walk, began to speak.

Their message: Fire walking is phony.

"No special mental talent is required to do this stupid stunt," said Bernard Leikind, a UCLA research physicist. "The claims of these mystics and others--they're just not true." The rules of physics--not one's state of mind--allow anyone to tolerate a brief barefoot walk over embers, Leikind said.

The public challenge was the most flamboyant gesture yet devised by the recently formed Southern California Skeptics, an organization devoted to debunking society's fascination with scores of popular theories, ranging from the Bermuda Triangle and UFOs to biorhythms and astrology, to faith-healing and "out-of-body" experiences.

Leaders of the Skeptics characterize themselves as a small group of academics fighting an uphill battle against a huge, oozing mass of unverified mysticism that threatens to exploit or defraud its followers.

"We want people to start thinking critically," said the group's organizer, Al Seckel, a brash, 26-year-old Redondo Beach man with a physics degree from Cornell University. Seckel, who does not have a paying job, works full time publishing the organization's local newsletter and building its membership, which he said now stands at around 500.

The Skeptics' board of directors includes Caltech physics professor Murray Gell-Mann, a 1969 Nobel Prize winner; Paul MacCready, an exponent of human-powered flight; Al Hibbs, senior staff scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a frequent commentator on space exploration; Edwin Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory, and magician James Randi.

Claims Called Dangerous

"A lot of paranormal claims are pure nonsense. Some of it is fun. But some of it is dangerous," said Paul Kurtz, professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo and chairman of the Skeptics' parent group, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

When a paranormal claim is accepted without proof, "it breaks down all rational defenses and people live by it," Kurtz said. "If people take psychics and fortune-tellers as true or consult their horoscopes or attempt to communicate with their dead Aunt Millie, that can put them into a position to be deceived and misled."

Krupp added: "It's important that people know the difference between belief and knowledge and not mistake the two."

Every now and then in this age-old battle between faith and science, there is a small victory, like the one Seckel won recently in a San Fernando Valley high school classroom.

He had been asked to lecture to an Introduction to Sociology class that in previous weeks had been visited by a string of psychic practitioners.

The teacher, Joseph Feinstein, is a middle-aged man who has become an unabashed supporter of many non-traditional theories since the early 1970s. ("In the last 15 years, my creative side has really been given a lot of vent.") Like many enthusiasts, Feinstein believes that parapsychologists are discovering new skills and forms of communication faster than science can validate them.

Yet "after spending 15 weeks presenting a wide array of psychics, graphologists and parapsychologists of all descriptions," Feinstein later wrote in a letter to Seckel, "you totally annihilated all their efforts in 40 rapid minutes."

"All I did," said Seckel, obviously relishing the memory, "was that instead of getting up there and telling them this is the way it is, I just said: 'Hey, kids, how would you test this parapsychological theory or that one?' They'd never thought about it before.

"They had just been listening to people. I had a number of kids come up afterwards and say, 'Thank you for setting us straight.' After all, at that age, there's no information--they're getting it from the teacher and they're supposed to believe what the teacher says."

Seckel and other leaders of Southern California Skeptics hope it will grow into an organization that can influence local schools, serve as a reference guide for the news media and strike out against selected targets of "pseudoscience."

For example, if a teacher wanted to discuss acupuncture, as Feinstein has done in his class, he would be encouraged to contact the Skeptics, who might refer him to someone like Ronald Crowley, a physics professor at California State University, Fullerton, who for years taught a class called Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.

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