by Mary Hooper
Page Stephens had an unusual errand to run the other day. He had to go out and buy a can of kerosene so that a man could set his arms on fire.
That's what happens when you're a member of the South Shore Skeptics. Although you may be a card-carrying skeptics, one who takes a dim view of the occult, magical, supernatural, paranormal and extraterrestial, still you never know when you might have to have some kerosene on hand so that a man can set his arms on fire.
The man in question is B.Premanand, also known as Randi of India. The Randi of America, of course, is James Randi, also known as the Amazing Randi, well-known debunker of claims of supernatural and paranormal occurances.
Like his American counterpart, Premanand is a magician who delights in exposing fraudulent claims of the superhuman or supernatural, and India, land of fakirs and wandering holymen, is fertile territory for such aggressive skepticism. Premanand is to speak tomorrow at a meeting of the Skeptics at Baldwin-Wallace College where he will demonstrate, among other things, how it's possible to ignite one's body while supposedly in a state of higher consciousness.
America is fertile territory for such debunking, too, according to Stephens, and not just at Halloween. This, he says, is why the South Shore Skeptics exist.
"Essentially we're interested in promoting science and education to try and counter many of the pseudo-scientific claims around us, everything from astrology to New Age stuff like channeling to ghosts to creationalism, all that silliness," said Stephens.
Founded six years ago, the South Shore Skeptics is a loosely-knit organization of about 70 people, many of whom are academicians and professionals. Even its name reflects the group's resistance to various kinds of nonsense.
"It's an inside joke," said Stephens with a laugh. "Kind of a reaction to all this North Coast stuff. Lake Erie doesn't have a coast, just a shore."
The Skeptics meet four times yearly at the Life and Science building at Baldwin Wallace. otherwise they communicate through their newsletter, the Skeptic, which comes out 10 times a year. Some of them also keep in touch over Cleveland FreeNet, a local computer bulletin board. The group has no officers, but Stephens, a West Sider and not-yet-published novelist, was named coordinator.
"That means that although I have no power, I get to do a lot of work," he chuckled.
The Skeptics, says Stephens, are not necessarily debunkers. Their attitude towards ghosts or UFOs is "we'll believe it when we see it." To that end, the Skeptics stand ready and willing to investigate any claim of a ghost or spirit.
"We're interested in the truth behind such claims. It turns out that no such thing as a ghost exists, fine. But debunking is not our real aim. The problem is that not very many people want these claims investigated. They prefer to hang onto their beliefs and resist having them investigated in any scientific, objective way," said Stephens.
He points to the notorious case of the Resch family of Columbus who, in 1984, claimed they had a poltergeist in the house. It seems this poltergeist would be especially rambunctious, throwing phones around, knocking furniture over, when daughter, Tina, then 14, was in the room.
The case received wide publicity and South Shore Skeptics Nick Sanduleak, an astronomy professor at Case Western Reserve University, and Steve Shore, went down to Columbus to investigate these astounding occurances. They were accompanied by no less than the Amazing Randi. The trio of skeptics got as far as the Reschs' front Door, says Stephens.
"They weren't allowed into the house to see these things at close hand, which I'm afraid is usually the case," he said.
It later was theorized that Miss. Resch may have possessed a strange power called psychokinesis which permitted her to move inanimate objects around almost at will. Others say it was a hoax. But of ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night there was little if any evidence.
Practicing skeptics seem willing to be convinced that there are ghosts and supernatural creatures, according to Stephens. Randi, for one, has a standing offer of $10,000 to the first person who can show him a real ghost, under conditions that meet certain objective, scientific criteria. According to Stephens, only one person has come forward in the 30 years since Randi has made the offer. That was a gentleman who possessed the amazing power to read record grooves.
"No kidding!" said Stephens. "This guy could pick up a record and study the grooves, and then he'd say, "This looks like Beethoven's Third," and then he'd tell you who probably conducted the damn thing. This is really weird but it isn't paranormal."
There are even corporate skeptics, Stephens said. The Cutty Sark Distillers of Great Britain have offered one million pounds to the first person who can produce some tangible evidence of a visitation by space aliens.
"I've never seen a ghost and I have no evidence of any ghost," said Stephens. "What we're willing to do is go out and investigate. We don't discount the possibility they exist, but so far there's been no evidence they do exist. If anyone can ever prove to my satisfaction that there are ghosts, I'll be the first one in line to back it up.
"If you make some claim, demonstrate it. Either put up or shut up," he said. "A lot of people insist these paranormal happenings are true but they can offer nothing to prove them. People have pet beliefs and they don't want them disturbed."
To Stephens and the other Skeptics, such widespread public credulity is merely evidence of the woeful state of education in this country.
"There's a lot of irrationality in this society. I think it's the result of the very bad system of public education we have that doesn't place much emphasis on science. Some years ago I taught at the University of Illinois and I was amazed at the number of weird beliefs the students had and what little interest they had in science or anything they thought was hard."
"If anyone can ever prove to my satisfaction that there are ghosts, I'll be the first one in line to back it up."
Stephens, 45, has a doctorate in anthropology and has also taught at Cleveland State University. He predicts that the next big fad will be satanism.
"That'll probably be the next big phony fright scare. I think there's a certain hysteria about satanism that's building now and will probably grow considerably before it diminishes. I'm not sure what accounts for it, but I do think that people are fearful and impressionable. We live in a country that is probably one of the most religious countries in the world. People have Satan pounded into their heads when they're kids," he said.
Stephens is appalled by news reports of satanic cults with their gruesome rituals of animal slaughter and baby sacrifice, but not because he thinks they're true. As an example, he pointed to a recent TV show, hosted by Geraldo Rivera, which purported to show evidence of Satanic rituals, "evidence" which included corpses of cows with their noses cut off. This, he says, is probably due to natural causes since scavenging insects will eat the soft parts of dead animals first.
The Skeptics' skepticism is not limited to supernatural occurances, but also include the latest examples of medical quackery which they gleefully attack in their newsletter. One of Stephens' favourites is iradology whose practitioners claim they can stare into person's eyes and immediately diagnose disease.
Several of the South Shore Skeptics are affiliated with the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and the Ohio Committee against Health Fraud. Although the group has no formal speakers bureau members are available for lectures. The organization can be reached through P.O. Box 5083, Cleveland, 44101 (U.S.A.)
His disdain of the supernatural notwithstanding, Stephens takes a reasonably benign view of Halloween. He is married with no children, but if he did have kids, he'd let them go out trick-or-treating.
"I did that when I was a kid, and the only lasting harm it did me was to contribute to my tooth decay," he said.
Courtesy: Daily Legal News and Cleveland Recorder Vol.101 No.217 Saturday, October 29, 1988.
Address: 2935 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44115.
The University of Regensburg neither approves nor disapproves of the opinions expressed here. They are solely the responsibility of the person named below.Gerald.Huber@r.maus.de
Last update: 19 June 1998