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Every month, a clutch of the National Capital Area Skeptics’ 250 members meets at the Bethesda Library to engage in the ancient art of skepticism, listening to lectures on the improbability of UFOs or rolling their eyes at the alarming popularity of alternative medicine. Skeptics groups have sprouted up all over the country, and the D.C. clubestablished in 1987is one of the largest. Although amateur magicians and homemakers make up a loyal constituency of about two dozen, the average member is a 50-something, quietly nerdy male. At age 25, Paul Jaffe, the group’s president, is one of its youngest members.
What is there to be so skeptical about?
It has a lot of applications in daily life. For instance, those chain e-mails. Almost everybody, I think, has gotten something that says, “Oh, if you get an e-mail that says ‘Join the crew,’ don’t open it because it will put a virus on your computer.” Here’s a great example of how a little bit of skepticism could prevent you from being an idiot in front of your friends.
Is there anything you do in your personal life that is not so skeptical?
When I was 13, my mom died. And that night, when I went to sleep, I had an image that I was in this warm place with yellow light, and I could hear her voice telling me that everything was going to be OK. And I just remember feeling like she was there; I could even feel the tears coming down my face. And I woke up the next morning, and it made me feel so much better. If I look at it now, I can’t say that it was definitely her coming back to comfort me, and I don’t know enough about psychology and studying dreams to really make a judgment about it. But I can understand how an experience like that would make someone a believer in that kind of thing.
What’s the most memorable event the group has ever held?
We had a sideshow freak come, and he did his act and explained how these things depend on the laws of physics….They’re not magic tricks, even though they’re bizarre. Like, he pounded a nail into his nose, and he shoved a balloon up his nose and brought it out his mouth, and jumped up and down on a pile of broken glass, and he inflated a hot-water bottle until it exploded, and he ate an actual lightbulb, like a real glass lightbulb, and put a cigar out on his tongue. Amanda Ripley