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Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2003 02:20 pm

Keeping it real

(left to right) Bob Ladendorf, David Bloomberg, and Wally Hartshorn, founders of the Rational Examination Association of Lincoln Land
photo by Nick Steinkamp

Wally Hartshorn still remembers his first reaction when a friend suggested they organize a group to explore paranormal claims and fringe science. "I thought it would be a lot of work," Hartshorn recalls.

David Bloomberg, who had floated the idea, laughed. "How much work can it be? A couple meetings, put out a newsletter - that's about it."

A decade later, Hartshorn says he still reminds Bloomberg of "that statement" from time to time. As it turned out, organizing and sustaining the Rational Examination Association of Lincoln Land became a major commitment for its founders, but it's a undertaking that's paid off. Their dogged efforts to carve out an oasis of rational thinking in the nation's heartland have helped the group achieve a measure of influence out of proportion to its relatively small membership.

REALL describes its mission as "the development of rational thinking and the application of the scientific method toward claims of the paranormal and fringe-science phenomena." Simply put, the organization looks at UFOs, psychics, alternative medicine and the creation/evolution controversy with a skeptical eye.

Bloomberg, REALL's founder and first chairman, credits an article in the Chicago Tribune with inspiring him to help start REALL. The article's premise, Bloomberg recalls, was: "If the United States was 'born' on July 4, 1776, what can astrology tell us about what kind of nation it is?" Bloomberg, an environmental engineer and freelance writer, says, "If it had come to the point where a respected newspaper such as the Tribune was treating astrology seriously, something needed to be done."

Bloomberg and two like-minded acquaintances - Hartshorn and Bob Ladendorf - joined forces, putting their devotion to science and critical thinking and their disdain for pseudo-science and claims of the paranormal into action. Their first newsletter was published in February 1993. Ladendorf, a retired state government executive, recently succeeded Bloomberg as chairman of the organization; Bloomberg continues as vice chairman.

Hartshorn, REALL's newsletter editor from the beginning and a systems analyst at Illinois EPA, says, "When I was growing up, so many people I knew believed in UFOs, crystal healing, etc. I felt there must be something to it, because I'd heard so much about it. I saw the Skeptical Inquirer [the magazine of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal] debunking a 'picture' of the Loch Ness monster. That was a real eye-opener.

"Paranormals say, 'You don't want to believe in it,' but most of our members were at least interested in such things. Then, as we looked into them, [we] became disillusioned. I'd love to find out aliens were, in fact, visiting us," Hartshorn says. "I wouldn't be afraid to know if there was life beyond death, but there's no scientific evidence of that - so why should we believe it?"

One example of the kind of topics REALL looks at was discussed at a recent monthly meeting. That evening, the topic was "the mad gasser of Mattoon" - an unknown person who, for two weeks in September 1944, allegedly terrorized Mattoon, Ill., by spraying a gas into homes. Occupants reported a sickly sweet odor, followed by a temporary paralysis. No culprit was ever found or charged with a crime, and the story has been the subject of numerous investigations and stories ever since.

Some subsequent studies concluded that there was no culprit, and the townspeople were affected by mass hysteria, while others argued that there was indeed a terrorist. Ladendorf researched the story and presented his conclusions that evening, siding with the former view. According to him, there was a "confluence of factors" resulting in mass hysteria: initial reports that fueled additional claims of gas attacks, press coverage, local news reports of an escaped German prisoner of war in the area, talk about possible gas warfare, and general wartime jitters. All of these factors, Landendorf believed, contributed to a climate of hysteria.

Ladendorf also drew contemporary parallels to the Mattoon incident, such as the numerous anthrax scares that popped up in the aftermath of 9/11, and an incident in December, in which many students at a Jacksonville high school reported feeling sick. Some of the students, it turned out, really were ill; others saw their classmates fall ill and responded in kind.

After the meeting, several REALL members discussed what attracted them to the organization. "Some people say, 'What's the harm in believing these things?' There is a danger," Ladendorf says, citing the example of the Heaven's Gate cult in California, which took the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997 as a cue for mass suicide, believing they'd catch a ride on a spaceship behind the comet. Bloomberg offered some medical examples: "Someone wants to believe in psychics, fine. But often it doesn't stop there. Some people, instead of taking a sick child to a doctor, they do alternative healing and the child dies. Some people oppose vaccinations, because they think it causes autism."

Jim Rosenthal, a REALL member, says, "There's some outright fakery in the field as well. Desperate people are manipulated." He gave as examples faith-healers Benny Hinn and Peter Popoff, whose claims of being able to heal people through prayer were found to be fraudulent.

REALL is officially neutral on questions of religious faith, but within that area, a number of claims have come under fire. "Certain issues cross the line," Ladendorf says. The controversy over evolution versus creationism has been discussed often: a recent trend Ladendorf cites is that of "intelligent design," in which creationists attempt to prove their side scientifically. REALL's position on the debate is clear: The group combined its tenth anniversary celebration this year with an observance of the birth of the father of the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin (1809-1882).

REALL members - the organization has about 50-60 people on its mailing list -- don't put much stock in creationism. "Creationists want pat, unconditional, unchanging answers - and science can't give you that," Bloomberg says. "It can only keep looking for the right answers."

Ladendorf adds, "Some people think that as skeptics, we don't believe in anything. A more accurate term would be 'skeptical inquirers' - we don't reject claims outright, but we do subject them to the scientific method."

REALL's members are pleased with what they've accomplished in their first decade. "I think we've made Springfield more aware," Ladendorf says. "We're known around here."

Bloomberg notes another positive result: REALL has remained in business. "Chicago does not have an active organization of skeptics and critical thinkers. St. Louis does, but it doesn't meet as often and does not print an original newsletter," Bloomberg says. "To have a monthly newsletter and monthly meetings in an area this size is quite an accomplishment."

Still, REALL has a long way to go, Rosenthal says. "There's so much 'pseudo-science' out there; so much misconception."

REALL meets at 7 p.m. on the first Tuesday of each month at Lincoln Library. Its next meeting is Dec. 2. For more information, visit their Web site at www.reall.org


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