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Yell ‘UFO’ and Watch Chip Denman Arch an Eyebrow

June 24, 1991

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) _ If you think you’ve seen Elvis recently, call Chip Denman immediately for a reality check.

Denman is Mr. Bah Humbug himself. He’s president of the National Capital Area Skeptics, a 350-member society of debunkers and naysayers who claim to serve ″at the front lines in the battle against gullibility and fraud.″

They erupt in rib-poking laughter at rumors that Elvis Presley is still alive. Their eyebrows arch at mention of ghosts, UFO abductions or the wonders of astrology. Bigfoot sightings are dismissed as hokum, New Age mysticism as balderdash.

But Denman, 36, a pony-tailed statistician at the University of Maryland, hastens to squelch any suggestion that his colleagues are mere spoilsports.

″We’re not a bunch of old fogies who sit around harrumphing and scoffing,″ he says. ″We try to maintain a high level of good humor and a sense of fun about what we are doing.″

The group publishes a quarterly newsletter titled ″Skeptical Eye″ and a monthly calendar of events called ″Shadow of a Doubt.″ Members attend a ″Seeing is Believing″ film series and hear lectures on such topics as ″Magic of the Gurus of India″ and ″Animal Quackers: Pseudoscience for Pets.″

Denman and a magician friend staged a Halloween show titled ″Seance 3/8 or Things That Go Bump in the Night,″ a theatrical spoof of the clairvoyant’s tricks of the trade.

For more than a year, the skeptics have offered a $1,000 award to anyone who can demonstrate psychic powers - mind reading, dousing or levitation, for example - under scientific test conditions.

So far, Denman says, nobody has stepped forward.

Led by Denman, the skeptics banded together four years ago to promote scientific inquiry based on hard evidence, and to combat ″irrationality, superstition and just plain nonsense.″ They include scientists, educators, lawyers, doctors and other white-collar professionals.

″We all share the idea that the scientific process is a good strategy for working in the world and making decisions, no matter whether you are getting medical treatment or buying a used car,″ Denman says.

″We say, go kick the tires. Don’t take the salesman’s word for it.″

Denman is not only a scientist but has been an amateur magician since childhood, when he was fascinated by his father’s card tricks.

″As a scientist, I’m concerned with how things really work,″ he says. ″And as a magician, I have come to appreciate how bright, well-educated, intelligent people can be fooled so easily.″

Denman doesn’t believe in ghosts. ″To believe in apparitions would require a radical change in what we know about modern physics,″ he says.

Most people have had some ″remarkable, compelling, personally spooky experiences’ that defy explanation, he says, but mistakenly try to explain them as paranormal events.

″As a scientist, I’d much rather say I don’t know what it was,″ he says.

Denman doesn’t rule out the possibility of future contact with intelligent beings from an alien planet.

He finds that prospect much more plausible than speaking with the voice of a long-dead warrior from Atlantis, or willing your body to float in air, or bumping into an older, wiser Elvis somewhere.

″I can say with some degree of certainty that I’ve never seen Elvis walking around my neighborhood,″ Denman says. ″I’m so skeptical that I can hardly believe it.″

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The telephone number for the National Capital Area Skeptics is 301-587-3827.