Professional skeptic debunks paranormal at SMC

James Underdown is dedicated to prove that UFOs, psychic powers and paranormal abilities are all impossible.

Underdown is a professional skeptic and investigator, and director of the nonprofit Center for Inquiry in Los Angeles. He is also the founder of the organization Independent Investigator Group, which investigates fringe science, paranormal and extraordinary claims from a rational, scientific viewpoint.

Santa Monica College's newly founded skeptics club invited Underdown to the college on Sept. 19 to speak about his organization's investigations.

As a venue for students to do serious critical thinking, the club was founded by Nate Brown, SMC professor for communications and media studies.

"I started the skeptics club because I was interested in advancing critical thinking," he said. "I just noticed that there are a lot of these pseudoscience kind of arguments out there."

"This is us trying to create a larger community of skeptics here at Santa Monica College," said Brown. "Too often in our society, we are fooled into believing things that we shouldn't or buying things that we shouldn't. Students are best served by developing their critical thinking skills and this is a fun way to do it."

Underdown agreed that, for students, there is a higher, more valuable lesson to be learned than just debunking ghosts and psychics.

"Critical thinking skills, not just with this stuff, the idea of being able to know the difference between what's true and what isn't, will serve you very well in your life in many different ideas," he said.

For Underdown, the mysterious, enticing world of ghosts and aliens is nothing more than a product of our cultural, sometimes psychological makeup, or potentially of hoaxers trying to scam a quick buck.

And there is a buck to make, Underdown announced. The Center for Inquiry is offering $100,000, in partnership with the Independent Investigator Group, to anyone who can provide definitive proof of psychic powers plus a $5,000 finder's fee for whoever brings in a real psychic.

Usually only two out of 100 people would actually come and try to win the prize, and so far no one has been able to go home with the money, Underdown said.

To the presentation, Underdown came prepared like a devoted crusader with tools to demonstrate how the human eye can be easily fooled.

It is common for some people to feel a presence in their home, or the touch of an unseen force, Underdown said.

Underdown said that he himself once felt a hand grab his calf "clear as a bell" in bed one evening.

But even this kind of experience can be explained by what Underdown described as as a hypnagogic occurrence, which takes place in a state between sleep and wakefulness. In this zone, the brain can start playing tricks, he said.

Underdown told the audience that most people who claim to have psychic powers or be possessed by demons really do believe much of it because of their surroundings and mindsets.

In an interview after the show, Underdown proposed an explanation for some people's belief in the impossible.

"The stories are a lot of fun," he said. "Movies like 'Paranormal Activity' or 'The Sixth Sense,' they're fun stories, and some people have an emotional tie to them. Their imagination doesn't want to think that the physical universe is a real thing. They want to think there's something beyond that.

The skeptics club meets on Thursdays from 11:15 to 12:35 p.m. at the Business Building, Room 251.

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