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THE WORD : Hoaxbusters

November 06, 1994|Susan Howlett

This a gullible world, full of people who really, truly, whole-heartedly believe that Elvis lives, UFOs exist, in-laws come back from the dead and Christ is making guest appearances on tortillas.

But the Altadena-based Skeptics Society is doing its best to find the truth behind all those Elvis, ghost and space cases. For three years, its members, who include UCLA biologist Jared Diamond, actor Steve Allen, magician/hoax-exposer James Randi and KFI talk-show therapist Laura Schlessinger, have been debunking claims ranging from the purported discovery of Noah's Ark to abductions by space creatures.

In Southern California, they've found earthly origins for the mysterious creaks, groans and bumps in the night that decorate haunted houses and told the world precisely how faith healers and 1-900 phone psychics pull the wool over the eyes of cash-bearing wanna-believes.

"We're not trying to spoil true belief; we're trying to provide people with a rational explanation," for the apparently paranormal, says Michael Shermer, the society's director and executive editor of the group's quarterly magazine, Skeptic.

"I like the bleeding icons, and the fire walking that was big a few years ago, we exposed that one," says Shermer, who is also a professor of the history of science at Occidental College. The icons, religious figures whose seeping porcelain pores drew scores of Southern California's faithful and hopeful, were, says Shermer, simply statues doctored up to mimic a miracle. (Who did the doctoring? God knows.) As for the fire-walking, Shermer staged a demonstration in which a colleague strapped a couple of steaks to the bottom of his feet and ran across a bed of coals. The meat wasn't even seared. The secret, says Shermer, is that glowing coal and running flesh aren't in contact long enough to cause a burn.

Though fraud and naivete account for many reports of supernatural occurences, there are other explanations. One of his first haunted house investigations took him to San Pedro a few years ago. "I had a lady call and say that her appliances were turning off and on, the water was turning on, things like that," Shermer says. He was eager to see it happen, and was all set to spend the night in the house.

"But after interviewing her, I found she was basically nuts. She was going on and on, thought the next door neighbor was beaming in radiation to give her cancer," he says. "Schizophrenia explained that one."

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