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Is it Paranormal?

One of the unusual aspects about testing people for the Center for Inquiry Investigations Group $250,000 Paranormal Challenge is having to determine whether something even qualifies as paranormal or miraculous in the first place. There are people out there with extraordinarily sensitive hearing, eyesight, and smell. There are others who can make 2500 free throws in a row. None of these abilities qualify for the prize because they do not defy any known physics — exceptional as they are.

Two cases the CFIIG has worked on over the years come to mind when the issue of qualifying for the prize arises.

Phillip L. came to us years ago with the claim of clairaudience. Clairaudience is the alleged perceiving, as if by hearing, what is (normally) inaudible. Phillip said that he could hear people talking softly (about him) at a great distance — much farther than one would expect to be able to hear from. But since excellent hearing isn’t a paranormal ability, we had to try to figure out where the dividing line was between great hearing and supernatural powers.

So at the old CFI West in Hollywood, CA, we set up what we called “the fort.” The fort was a couple of couches stood up on end with various materials draped around them to create a sound-deadening booth on the west end of the 2nd floor of the building. Phillip sat on the stage of the Steve Allen Theater which was at the east end of the building on the 1st floor. We thought the combination of the distance, the sound dampening of the fort, and the heavy steel and concrete construction of the building would be sufficient to render Phillip’s claim of hearing a spoken word at that distance impossible.

Naturally, we conducted a few tests to confirm this. We took an air horn to the fort and a sound meter to the stage to get an idea of what could leak through, and tried other loud sounds as well. After determining that even loud sounds were inaudible, we were confident that normally spoken words could not be heard.

Phillip could not hear anything that was spoken from the fort that day, and failed the test.

More recently, an applicant came to us with video of a mushroom-shaped glass top which he rotated in a circle on a glass coffee table. While we don’t accept video as evidence of paranormal ability, the recording did raise some questions about what was physically possible with such objects. We had to educate ourselves about rattlebacks, which are small objects meant to be spun, which — on their own — change direction and spin the other way. We also bought similar tops to conduct our own experiments, and consulted a couple of physicists who looked at the video to see if there was something physic-defying going on. The claimant showed the glass top rotating and changing direction in an unexpected way.

We brought the physicists in to see if there was anything exceptional about how the objects were behaving. Naturally, we brainstormed many other ways to manipulate an object through air currents, magnetism, vibration, tilting, etc. We determined that what was happening — while somewhat unexpected — was not at all paranormal or physics-defying.

The beauty of team-based investigations and testing is that we are unafraid to draw from the expertise of our group or from qualified experts outside the CFIIG. This openness to others’ help makes us better investigators and better skeptics.

Jim Underdown
Founder & Chair
CFI Investigations Group