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Skeptics Gather for LA Convention - 2002-06-22

To skeptics, miracles and mysterious phenomena of all kind can be explained with a bit of science. Examining claims of the paranormal, from UFOs to astrology and spiritual healing, is at the core of the World Skeptics Conference held in Los Angeles through Sunday.

Paul Kurtz, an emeritus professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, says claims of the paranormal should be rigorously tested. If they are, he says there is no need for supernatural explanations.

Mr. Kurtz is the founder and chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. He says scientists have examined claims of ghostly apparitions for 150 years. "You have the spiritualists and the mediums of the 19th century, and this continued. The investigation of ghosts and ESP (extra-sensory perception) and other strange phenomena, tilting tables and communication on the "other side." And science is objective," he says. "It tries to be fair-minded and open. The point is, if someone makes a claim, can you confirm it? That's the point. If someone makes a claim, are there facts to support it?"

Inevitably, Mr. Kurtz says, the answer is no. The meeting in Los Angeles will examine phenomena from faith healing to crop circles, mysterious marks in farm fields that Mr. Kurtz says are not produced by alien visitors. "I think crop circles are hoaxes, basically, and there are many people who have confessed that they made these circles by wearing paddles and making strange designs. They're not extraterrestrial. So you can give an explanation for it," he says. "And I think it's true in field after field. So we patiently examine these claims and try to give a prosaic, causal explanation, a natural explanation."

Mr. Kurtz's committee does not target religion, but he rejects religious claims of miracles, which he says are simply events that cannot be explained yet. He says that with investigation, claims of miracles can be explained by natural causes. The group also works to counter biblical creationism, which it sees as groundless.

Mr. Kurtz sees an upswing in paranormal beliefs in frequent television appearances by so-called spirit mediums and continued sightings of mythical creatures, such as Bigfoot. He says the media are exploiting peoples' ignorance. "You have gullibility, credulity, wishful thinking, played up by a media which is interested primarily in ratings and not information, entertainment and not education," he says. "And I think this is the age of science, of tremendous progress, of tremendous advance, why do we have to bring back medieval superstition?"

Mr. Kurtz's organization publishes a magazine called The Skeptical Inquirer and operates a publishing house called Prometheus Books. The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal has affiliated groups in Russia, France, Peru and other countries.