Just after 1 p.m. on a bright Sunday in October, a group of academics and free-thinkers are transforming an ordinary classroom at Baldwin-Wallace College into a controlled test environment. Everything falls into place rather quickly, leaving them with nothing much to do but nervously check their watches and rearrange chairs and tables. By 1:15 the psychic sightings start coming in: A lost-looking man is wandering around the Life and Earth Science Building.
At 1:45 he finally rambles into the lobby, holding a pencil in one hand and a packed lunch in the other. He exudes the uncanny scent of air freshener.
It's him all right.
"It took me an hour and a half to find this place," the psychic complains in a slightly whiny monotone. Since there's no proven link between psychic abilities and directional ones, the group doesn't hold it against him or ask for details. He provides them anyway, as if his trek from Cleveland to Berea was an epic journey worthy of mythic retelling. After the bus dropped him off near the campus, he says, he wandered, lost and hungry, for more than an hour. At one point, he stopped for a slice of pizza at Little Caesar's, where someone finally gave him good directions.
From the Princess Leia button on his lapel, it's clear he's a Star Wars fan. Other things about the 57-year-old warehouse worker are harder to discern. Despite four decades spent honing the ability to project his thoughts into the minds of unsuspecting individuals, the psychic doesn't want to reveal his name. He prefers to be called "Mr. Blau," after the German word for blue. It's the color of his worn coat, his Chief Wahoo cap, and his unknotted tie.
"Are you Dr. Page Stephens?" he mistakenly asks a biology professor, one of several Ph.D.s in the odd company. He is surprised and somewhat taken aback when greeted by the real Stephens, a scraggly, sharp-tongued anthropologist who sports long hair, a fedora, and the attitude of a recovering academic.
In 16 years of investigating claims of the paranormal, Stephens has never seen anyone like Mr. Blau either. The most unusual thing about him is that he's here at all. On a Sunday afternoon when everyone else in town is watching the Browns play the Bengals, Mr. Blau is eager to do what no other local psychic has ever dared: put his powers to the test.
This only increases Stephens's already unflappable skepticism. He's learned that something about science tends to have an obliterating effect on psychic skills. Most practitioners would rather not subject themselves to scientific scrutiny, especially since the paying public rarely asks them for proof of their authenticity anyway.
Mr. Blau, however, isn't here for the sake of science or fame, or because a dead person whispered in his ear. There's only one reason he has wandered into a classroom with a stage, three video cameras, and more skeptics than most psychics meet in a lifetime.
One million dollars.
It's there all right, earmarked for the first person who can convince the famous magician and debunker James Randi that he or she has a paranormal ability. Mr. Blau is convinced that the money has his real name -- which Randi knows -- written all over it.
Randi first challenged professed practitioners of the paranormal in 1968, offering $1,000 to anybody who could prove they have psychic powers. No one claimed it. So he upped the prize to $10,000, then to $1 million. It wasn't real money at first, just an amount pledged by hard-nosed skeptics from around the world. Then "a very wealthy gentleman in one of the northern states" made a donation of $1 million to Randi's cause. The money now sits in an investment account in New York City, collecting interest while Randi fields calls from potential contenders.
Once the alleged psychics realize they will have to undergo a real scientific test, however, few return the application. Only about a dozen a year actually take a test.
And Randi says no one has come anywhere near winning the big prize.
That's because all the spoonbenders, faith healers, mindreaders, prognosticators, psychics, and palm readers in all the telephone directories in the United States are phonies. At least they are to Randi and a movement of individuals who believe that claims of the paranormal can be investigated and proven or disproven according to the laws of science.
They are the aptly named skeptics. To them, the paranormal is often quite normal indeed. Mysteries are like math equations, whose answers can be figured out with enough work. With little funding or recognition, skeptics wage an unpopular crusade against ignorance and scam artists, trying to save the human race from its eternal attraction to hokum.
Near the millennium, their voice of reason is more of a whisper than a roar.
"By the year 2000," predicts Stephens, head of the local South Shore Skeptics, "there will be more people on the mountaintops than room on the mountaintops to hold them."
It's speculative whether actual claims of the paranormal are heightened by the approaching millennium. It's pure fact, however, in these times of psychic hotlines and power bracelets, that they are becoming more mainstream. The media crowd our heads with paranormal babble. Talk shows and news shows alike are rife with reports of bleeding statues, miracle workers, and communicants with the dead. Books on such topics crowd the bestseller lists. Recent movies exploring supernatural themes include The Sixth Sense, Stigmata, and Stir of Echoes. New television series, such as Roswell, also exploit our penchant for the paranormal.
Barely discernible in all the hubbub are the skeptics. The minimal camera time and news ink they get is hardly commensurate with the amount of work they do, most of which is unpopular, unrecognized, and unpaid. And no wonder: They wield telescopes and calculators, unglamorous tools compared to tarot cards and ghost detectors. They use math and the scientific method, boring compared to seances and alien autopsies.
No matter. For skeptics, "extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof" -- millennium fever notwithstanding. And this afternoon, the burden is on Mr. Blau.
The Magic Touch
Mr. Blau says his powers are not gifts, but the result of hard work. He has succeeded where so many others have failed, he claims, because he concentrates on sending telepathic messages instead of receiving them.
"I knocked a barrier down in my mind by saying I wanted to be telepathic," he says. "If you give up your private thoughts, it takes the barrier down. And once the barrier's removed, you can become telepathic."
Mr. Blau says he didn't tell anyone about his powers until last December, when he heard about the $1 million challenge on television. He contacted the James Randi Educational Foundation, filled out the application form, and mailed it in. Soon Randi sent him a letter informing him that he was in the running. But before he could perform for the Amazing Randi, he had to perform for the South Shore Skeptics -- arguably a task just as difficult.
Stephens, who, like the other skeptics in the room, is a volunteer, has made the arrangements for today in spite of his better judgment. He always fields the calls about the latest UFO sighting or ghost haunting and is a casualty of too many goofball claims. These have included such yawners as bogus reports of a devil's face that suddenly appeared on a split veneer and a mermaid that someone found on a refrigerator. After sixteen years, he's heard it all.
"The only UFO we ever investigated was a rare conjunction of Mars, Venus, and Jupiter," he recalls. "The Lake Erie Monster was made up by some guys who were on the lake drinking beer. There's also supposedly a sea serpent somewhere near Sandusky . . ." He could go on and on, like a grizzled war veteran reliving his battle days -- vivid and bitter, not quite nostalgic.
Thanks to the skeptics' full roster of experts, Stephens can usually debunk paranormal claims with a couple of phone calls. But testing Mr. Blau was a daunting process, involving innumerable letters and telephone calls, and narrowing his many professed powers to a single testable claim. Mr. Blau says he can project any sensory stimulus into people's minds, but is best at something he calls "psychic aura touch" -- the ability to make subjects believe he's touched them just by thinking about it.
For all the energy and annoyance involved in arranging a test, something about the congenial psychic kept Stephens working. Maybe it was his eagerness and his genuine belief in himself. Maybe it was the other skeptics, gently prodding Stephens to make the arrangements. After all, few psychics agree to walk into the lion's den of science. Fewer still contend for the million-dollar prize.
Mr. Blau could be the one. He's odd. He's confident. And he's sincere.
"It never entered my head," Mr. Blau says, "that they wouldn't believe me."
As Mr. Blau moves to the front of the room, about half of the 20 spectators gravitate toward the middle seats, which will offer the best view of both the psychic and his receiver. Not Stephens. He is surveying the scene from a distance, trying to decide what he will do during the experiment.
"I will either listen to the game or play the guitar," he concludes.
He seems the only one, for the moment, whose skepticism has not given way to hope.
The Darker Ages
You fancy yourself a rational person, so why do you intentionally avoid walking under ladders? Why do you shudder when you're alone in the basement? Why do you fixate on an oddity in the night sky? You've never seen any proof of bad luck, ghosts, or UFOs.
But you want to believe. Everyone does -- even skeptics.
It's something the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) has been exploring ever since the day it was formed.
"People want to believe in these things because they're magic," offers Randi, one of the founding members. "They want some magical control. That's why they go to astrologers. Some guy 5,000 years ago made up these rules when they didn't know what was going on in the sky . . . This is mythological stuff from medieval days and premedieval days. Yet people tend to believe in it. They want to believe in it because it's romantic."
Throw millennial madness into the mix, and you've got a whole other dynamic. David Kessler, executive administrator of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, says interest in the paranormal is nothing new. But at certain times in history -- millennia, for instance -- the interest is more pronounced. Religious revivals, apocalyptic attitudes, and belief in claims of supernatural activities are what the center calls "millennial behaviors." Just about everyone exhibits them at one time or another.
Put 100 skeptics in a room and ask them to break a mirror, Kessler challenges. Even the most doubtful among them will hesitate and wonder, if only for an instant, about whether they're dooming themselves to seven years' bad luck.
"We like playing at superstition," Kessler says. "We like going to horror movies, because we like to be scared. There's some part of the brain that wants to believe and does."
In the past few years, the media have increased their coverage of apocalyptic movements and other millennial-based claims, notes Kessler. This alarms skeptics, who would like to see more, rather than less, critical thinking. In 1976 the growing acceptance of pseudoscientific claims prompted a group of educators and scientists -- Randi, Carl Sagan, and Martin Gardner among them -- to form CSICOP, a network of scientists and educators devoted to discovering the truth. Long before Mulder and Skully, CSICOP skeptics were investigating the X-files.
They report their findings in the Skeptical Inquirer, a monthly journal whose circulation has grown to 40,000. The CSICOP roster now includes science celebrities like Stephen Jay Gould and Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg. In all, about 90 local groups, like the South Shore Skeptics, investigate claims in 30 countries.
Stephens, one of South Shore's founders, says on the group's website that the organization hearkens back to "the dark ages, when witches roamed the earth -- as opposed to today, which might be described as the even darker ages, when even more witches roam the earth." The group name is both a pun on cofounder/astronomer Steve Shore's name and a skeptical comment on the idea that Cleveland is located on the "north coast" of the United States. Lakes, Stephens reminds us, do not have coasts. So the South Shore Skeptics is the more accurate name for a group located on the south shore of Lake Erie.
The group has four meetings per year, most of which are attended by about 30 people and usually feature a guest speaker. At one of the early meetings, astronomer Nick Sanduleak presented a paper titled "Moon Acquitted of Murder in Cleveland," disproving the myth that erratic behavior peaks on nights when the moon is full. The group reached its greatest online visibility in the mid-'90s, when the skeptics interacted regularly with the public in online forums through the Cleveland Freenet.
South Shore Skeptic Jim Kutz moderated those forums and estimates that users posted about 15,000 messages over the past nine years. As a former member of CSICOP's Electronic Communications Subcommittee, he watched the Internet broaden skeptics' reach into areas like public policy, health claims, fringe science, and consumer rip-offs.
Skeptics have investigated the alleged success of the war on drugs, gender stereotypes, herbal medicine, therapeutic touch, and other nontraditional healing mechanisms. They apply their no-sacred-cows mentality to just about any claim now, emphasizing critical thinking skills in areas well beyond the paranormal.
"More skeptics are emphasizing science education and rational thinking over debunking," Kutz, a physicist, writes. "If you merely debunk a myth, another takes its place. But if you reinforce reality testing, you immunize against flakery."
But in these times of angels and astrotherapy, strict adherents to science are not always welcome. Even in some quarters of the scientific community, skeptics have a reputation as closed-minded curmudgeons who have grown old, literally and ideologically. Attendees at a recent CSICOP convention almost all had gray hair, one observer reports. James Randi won't even use the word "skeptic" anymore because of its negative connotation.
Skeptics of the skeptics have created websites devoted to trashing them. A group of scientists called the Society for Scientific Exploration publishes a journal devoted to investigating claims of the paranormal without the so-called "debunking" mentality of CSICOP. Last year, the Journal of Scientific Exploration published a controversial article making a case for expanding UFO research. The article was, of course, criticized by CSICOP.
"The problem is, the word "skeptic' has been co-opted by these people, who are debunkers," says journal editor and astrophysicist Bernard Haisch. "I've actually heard them say they wouldn't believe it if they saw it."
Still, hard-core skeptics are hardly a cookie-cutter crowd. Aside from the tendency to question whatever they're told, little is uniform about them. Skeptics are true individualists. The South Shore Skeptics' bylaws, for instance, decree that no one can speak for the group. Members can speak only for themselves.
If local skeptics were measured on a continuum, Rick "I spell astrology with two "s''s" Rickards definitely would be at one end. "I'm a doubter," confesses Rickards, a veterinarian and one of the original members of the South Shore Skeptics. "I believe all knowledge and progress stems from skepticism."
At the other end would be retired engineer Cal Wight, a skeptic-spiritualist who believes the world can be perceived through more than the five senses. He holds this belief because he's observed certain things in nature that have not been scientifically explained, such as why the buzzards always arrive at Hinckley Ridge at the same time each year or why dogs are more likely to attack those who fear them.
Then there are his own experiences.
Once he was going to Saskatchewan to pay a surprise visit to his niece. He couldn't remember whether she lived at 1309 15th Avenue or 1509 13th Avenue. He searched for a while before finding the right house, then kept his confusion about the address to himself. That evening his niece told him that, while he was driving around, she was asleep -- dreaming that she was trying to visit him, but was unsure of the address.
"There was no way that any of the five senses of taste, touch, smell, hearing, or seeing could have given this vision to my niece," he determined. "This vision of her house-searching came to my niece through a sixth sense."
Odds and Ends
Mr. Blau has been practicing his paranormal powers since he was a science-fiction-crazed teenager in the '50s. Inspired by the parapsychological experiments conducted by J.B. Rhine at Duke University during the 1930s, the young Mr. Blau experimented with the techniques Rhine pioneered to measure a person's ability to guess shuffled cards and rolled dice.
The first time he sent a successful telepathic message was on June 4, 1959.
"I was sitting in school thinking about a girl," he recalls. "Her name was Carol Lungsford, and I was sitting there thinking about Carol Lungsford. You know, just thinking. And this kid says, "Somebody keeps saying "Carol Lungsford."'"
After that, Mr. Blau says, he learned to plant thoughts into the heads of perfect strangers, who would actually respond to him as if he were talking. Eventually, he says, he was able to influence animals, then insects, by putting the scent of food into their minds, causing them to change directions in search of the perceived food.
Mr. Blau thinks his powers can be learned by anyone who practices his technique. He also believes they can be duplicated in a controlled environment, which is why he is eager to perform for the skeptics.
The classroom-turned-lab has taken on a curious vibe. Every procedure has been set, every variable considered, every precaution against trickery taken, right down to making sure the test is conducted on a carpeted stage to rule out foot-tapping signals. Mr. Blau looks out of place on the stage, with photographers and skeptics buzzing around him. The cameras make him especially nervous. He's agreed to be photographed only because Randi requires it for the million-dollar prize, and he has insisted that his face not appear in print. When asked how he will handle the publicity if he ends up winning the million dollars, Mr. Blau hesitates.
"I know I'll have a hard time," he says.
Mr. Blau and his receiver sit on mustard-colored chairs on the stage, backs to the audience, with a solid barrier between them. The test conductor, sitting across a table from Mr. Blau, will flip a coin. If it's heads, Mr. Blau will mentally "touch" the receiver on his right shoulder, prompting him to raise his right hand. If it's tails, he will psychically touch the receiver on the left shoulder, meaning the left hand should be raised.
Observers on each side of the barrier will record the results of the coin toss and hands raised. There are also three cameras -- one focused on Mr. Blau, another on his receiver, and the third on the coin -- to provide an indisputable video record of each and every flip.
To qualify for the Randi prize, Mr. Blau must beat odds of 1,000 to one. That translates into getting 66 out of 100 coin flips right.
When Mr. Blau asks the skeptics to supply him with a receiver for the test, they volunteer Cal Wight, who is noticeably nervous as he steps onto the stage. He's never, as far as he knows, received a telepathic message. He's not certain he can do this.
"Could you turn around for a minute?" Mr. Blau asks him. "I want to test you."
Facing Wight's back, Mr. Blau asks him to raise his arm, deliberately not specifying which one.
Wight's left arm goes up, tentatively.
"You are a sensitive!" Mr. Blau proclaims. "I was thinking left."
Wight seems a bit surprised. "Well, thank you," he says.
The proceedings are momentarily interrupted when the wife of one skeptic pops her head into the room and yells, "Touchdown Browns!" The skeptics let out a cheer. Even superskeptic Stephens utters an emphatic "Amazing!" He briefly stops what he's doing and leaves the room to check on the game.
Mr. Blau, meanwhile, takes his seat, chatting nervously about his childhood as an "Air Force brat" and what he plans to do if he wins the Million-Dollar Challenge. "If I win, I'll donate it to charity," he says as more flashbulbs pop. "I'd use it to help the starving children in Africa and to help the Indians, and -- oh, yes, to help the homeless of Cleveland. When are we going to start?"
Just before the first flip, Wight leans around the barrier and makes a suggestion: When Mr. Blau sends his telepathic directional message, why doesn't he raise his own hand at the same time? It's the first request made all day that Mr. Blau doesn't protest. In particular, he's taken issue with the barrier separating him from Wight and a boombox blaring taped static, which is supposed to rule out the possibility of auditory signaling.
But to Wight's suggestion he gushes, "Brilliant! I never would have thought of that."
At about 2:15, Dr. Steve Hilliard, the biology professor in charge of the test, performs the first coin toss. It lands in the cardboard box with a small thud. Mr. Blau leans over to see inside, then raises his hand.
Stephens rushes to the boombox and turns it off.
"If you raise your hand like that, we're not going to be able to do the test," he warns, explaining that the psychic is restricted to mental moves only. After a brief argument, Mr. Blau acquiesces.
"There's so much confusion," he sighs. "But we'll get it right."
For the next hour, the stage is an assembly line of activity: Hilliard pitches the coin into the box. Mr. Blau peers inside. Hilliard writes down the result and shines a flashlight on a screen visible from both sides of the barrier, alerting Wight that the coin has been tossed and a telepathic message is forthcoming. Wight raises his hand. A skeptic on his side shines a flashlight back, letting Hilliard know that Wight has raised his hand.
The process repeats itself, literally, a hundred times.
Mr. Blau wears earphones so he won't be bothered by the noise generator. He doesn't shift or fidget. For a while, he just makes marks with his pencil on two sheets of paper, his own record of whether the toss is heads or tails. At one point, he gets distracted and stops.
Wight's gaze remains fixed on the white screen in front of him, watching for the flashlight signals. Sometimes his hand shoots up right away. Other times, he's more hesitant. Occasionally he puts a finger to his mouth, closes his eyes to concentrate, or shakes his head. Despite the headache-inducing static blaring from the boombox, Wight's wife, Adria, an astrologer who brands the skeptics' meetings as "mentally abusive," falls asleep in the audience.
Stephens retreats to the doorway of the classroom, where he sits throughout the test, strumming his guitar. By the time it's completed, only four people remain in the audience, including Rickards, who tried to beat the boredom by receiving Mr. Blau's supposed telepathic messages himself and keeping his own score.
As Hilliard hurries to a nearby office to tally the results, Mr. Blau is already doing spin control.
"I thought I'd be facing the guy [Wight]," he says. "It's like telling Annie Oakley to shoot a target and then putting a sheet in front of it."
The skeptics mull around the lobby, racked with anticipation. Mr. Blau and Stephens converse until Mr. Blau starts poking the eraser end of his pencil -- which he refers to as a "force expression caster" -- at the air in front of Stephens. Mr. Blau explains that he's trying to check Stephens's sensitivity.
"That's what my doctor's been doing to me for months," Stephens grouses before walking away.
After a short time, Hilliard emerges with unhappy news: The results are 48 correct out of 100, well shy of the 66 Mr. Blau needed.
The million-dollar signs quickly disappear from his eyes. The confidence he so ardently displayed at the beginning of the afternoon fades, duller than the worn blue of his coat. The skeptics who were flocking around him earlier start cleaning up, stacking chairs, packing up cameras, and turning the test area back into an ordinary college classroom. Standing alone in the lobby, Mr. Blau disappointedly unzips his bag and stuffs the results from the test inside, as if to quickly shield himself from his score.
The skeptics take it in stride. No one gripes about giving up a Sunday afternoon when the Browns are playing to conduct a failed test. As skeptic William Cohen-Kiraly says, the psychic had a better chance than the Browns. Everyone knew they were going to lose.
Nor are there any admonishments or "told-you-sos" to Mr. Blau. Instead, the skeptics invite him to join them at a nearby pizza parlor.
Using the transparent excuse that he's still full from his Little Caesar's, Mr. Blau declines at first. But Stephens becomes suddenly chipper and persistent. Over the last year, the two have gotten to know each other through letters and telephone calls. It would be nice to have a chance to talk, he tells him.
At the nearly deserted restaurant, they all sit around a long table beneath a television monitor tuned to the Browns game. The dismal performance of the home team provides skeptics and psychic with common ground. For Mr. Blau, it's the second emotional loss of the day -- and the cheaper one.
He thanks Stephens for setting up the test, but it's clear that Mr. Blau is still crushed. At one point, he looks up from his drink and says, "Well, the skeptics won this round."
Stephens disagrees. He says he was glad to do the test. It was a landmark occasion for the group. Besides, Stephens says, "Everyone I talked to was rooting for you."
For once, skeptic and psychic reverse roles.
Mr. Blau just doesn't buy it.
Jacqueline Marino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.