There was a full moon one night last week, an event that some otherwise sensible people believe makes the crime rate go up. But there is no basis in fact to support that view, which is made clear in an article in the current issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, the quarterly journal of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. For the last eight years the committee, based in Buffalo, N.Y., has done yeoman's service in putting before the public the truth about such things as astrology, ESP, UFOs, dowsing, creationism, phrenology and other pseudoscientific claptrap. Unfortunately, the circulation of the Skeptical Inquirer is minuscule compared to that of the National Enquirer, a purveyor of such nonsense.
The aim of the committee and of its recently formed local chapter, the Southern California Skeptics, is to put claims about the paranormal to the tests of real science and of common sense. Invariably, fringe science is exposed as the fraud that it is. The Southern California branch recently demonstrated that fire-walking does not require special mental powers or out-of-body experiences. It is explainable by the ordinary rules of physics.
One of the leading Skeptics is James (the Amazing) Randi, a magician who once demonstrated that Uri Geller's claims of psychokinesis were simple magic tricks. For 21 years Randi has offered a $10,000 prize to anyone who can give "proof of any paranormal, supernatural or occult power demonstration under properly controlled conditions." So far, his 10 big ones remain safely in his pocket, and it is unlikely that he will ever have to part with them.
Why many people insist on believing in absurdities is an intriguing question, which, like many intriguing questions, remains unanswered. People cling to beliefs in spite of all demonstrations of truth to the contrary. Throughout history, superstition has exerted a nearly unbreakable grip on people and on societies. For a long time scientists merely chuckled at such things, considered them harmless and shrugged their shoulders. Now they are organizing to put the other side before the public.
In its first newsletter the Southern California Skeptics assert, "We hope to replace superstition and beliefs in the paranormal with something stronger and more secure--i.e., reason, common sense, logic and the scientific method . . . . People want to know, and they want to know the correct answers. We will be there to inform the curious."
Of course, people are entitled to believe anything they want, however foolish, and many will undoubtedly continue to do so. But the Skeptics are on the right track, and we wish them well.