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

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.

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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.

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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.”

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“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.

Crowley would reach into his files and pick out, say, a University of Florida study that found sticking acupuncture needles into random body locations relieved as much pain as applying the needles at the designated body “meridians” used by acupuncturists.

“It’s a free country, and people can believe anything they want, or be wedded to superstition, but it seems if somebody makes a claim, people should be able to know the other point of view,” said Kurtz of the national organization.

Besides its fire-walk demonstration, the Skeptics have sponsored several lectures, including Randi critiquing ESP and Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould attacking the biblical account of Creation.

The group’s bimonthly newsletter is patterned after the national paranormal study organization’s Skeptical Inquirer, a 25,000-circulation quarterly that publishes technical articles on various paranormal claims and keeps tab on other esoterica, like the Gallup Poll finding that the proportion of teen-agers who believe in astrology has jumped to 55% from 40% in the last six years.

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TV Report Criticized

The Skeptics’ recent newsletter criticized a local television station’s report on a “haunted” Westwood cemetery, complained that creationism is based on “scientific absurdities” and repeated Randi’s 21-year-old offer of $10,000 “for proof of any paranormal, supernatural or occult power demonstration under properly controlled conditions.”

“I don’t expect we’re going to reach more than a small fraction of people,” Crowley said, “but the idea is for them to touch others. We live in an age where it is very difficult to comprehend the world. People really feel that loss. They are looking for answers.”

That climate, Seckel believes, has made people more gullible and less willing to ask questions about appealing theories.

As an example, he and other Skeptics cite the acquittal last summer in Los Angeles Superior Court of a lawyer and an inventor on fraud charges concerning a “perpetual motion” machine.

The device was billed as producing more energy than it consumed--an impossibility, according to trial testimony by a physicist. Yet in deciding that the inventor did not make false claims to his investors, the jury appeared to believe the claims. Interviews after the trial with several investors found they remained supportive.

Reaction to ‘Dowsing’

More recently, Seckel was infuriated when The Times’ real estate section published an article about a psychic who claimed to be able to locate underground mineral or gas deposits by using ESP. Seckel fired off a letter of protest, insisting that there is no scientific proof that so-called “dowsing” works. But the article produced numerous letters of appreciation from people who said they believed in the technique.

All of the scientists acknowledge that breaking through such beliefs is difficult and that a hard-edged counterclaim can produce a backlash.

“I don’t believe in hitting people with a fish and saying, ‘This is the truth,’ ” said Griffith Observatory Director Krupp. “I have watched occasions when people far more experienced than I in (demystifying) psychic phenomenon present this material to large audiences and the audience will not accept it. Everybody has had some dream they remember or some feeling they remember. You tell people that was a meaningless thing; they don’t want to hear that.”

“If we just were tearing down, that would be a bad thing,” Seckel said. “But we’re trying to replace this stuff with the balance that they need, which is the science and rational thinking.”

That was the point that physicist Leikind and psychologist William J. McCarthy hammered at last Sunday at Caltech as they staged their fire walk.

The secret to understanding the physics of fire walking, Leikind told the audience, is the difference between temperature and heat.

For example, he said, consider a cake baking in an oven at 400 degrees. The air in the oven, the cake and the cake pan are all about the same temperature, but while you can put your hand inside the oven without pain, you cannot touch the cake pan. The reason: The air has a low heat capacity and poor thermal conductivity, while the aluminum pan has a high heat capacity and a high thermal conductivity.

In the case of the fire walk, the embers are light, fluffy carbon compounds with low heat capacity. In addition, the human body has a relatively high heat capacity, similar to water. Thus, Leikind said, when the foot touches the embers, they cool off faster than the skin warms up, enabling one to tolerate a quick walk.

In addition, the embers lose heat rapidly, so that those who walk 15 minutes after the embers are spread have an easier time of it, Leikind said. (Measurements Sunday found that parts of the embers fell to 500 degrees.)

Leikind and McCarthy then proceeded to walk across the embers with apparent ease. The scientists extended an invitation to the audience, and more than 100 came out of the bleachers and walked on the coals without further instruction. No one appeared to suffer immediate injury, although blisters could have developed hours later.

Said Leikind: “I’m highly in favor of people increasing their confidence, trying things they haven’t tried before, but I don’t believe deception is necessary.”

Mental Powers, Success Linked

One organization that sponsors fire walks, the Robbins Research Institute of Del Mar, tells pupils that the mental powers they develop to tolerate fire walking can be used to achieve success in other areas.

Robbins declined to comment on the criticism.

“It’s important that people realize there are people out there trying to deceive you,” said audience member Ron Trunk, a UCLA student and part-time computer programmer, cooling his feet in a pool of water after his fire walk.

But some are skeptical of the Skeptics.

Bill Jenkins, who hosts a weekly Los Angeles radio talk called “Open Mind” devoted to many of the subjects that the Skeptics attack, says he welcomes the new organization but believes that “great new breakthroughs” by parapsychologists and other proponents of “new reality” are being blocked “by the arrogance of the scientific community (and) all of the little laws they have put in their books. . . . We’re looking at sort of an intellectual aristocracy, and they don’t want to trouble the waters.”

“You’re not going to tell me that sweat on the bottom of my feet is keeping me from being burned in a fire walk,” Jenkins said of another scientific theory that moisture on the feet, from sweat or damp material on the coals, forms a protective shield of water vapor.

“I watched the fire walkers in Fiji standing on those heated rocks, and you can drop a palm leaf on those rocks and watch it ignite,” Jenkins said.

Physicist Leikind’s response: The Fiji fire walkers choose cobbles of volcanic rock, “probably pumice. Pumice is that strange porous rock that floats in water. It has a low heat capacity and a poor thermal conductivity.”


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