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Heads up, Miss Cleo.

John Edward beware.

The debunkers are coming to town, although some psychics probably already knew that.

The Amherst-based Center for Inquiry, which has made a global business of doubting legends from Bigfoot to UFO's, is opening a Hollywood office. The skeptics want to be close to production companies to be accessible for responding to claims of the occult and paranormal on television.

Paul Kurtz, a retired UB philosophy professor who co-founded the local center in 1976, said television has exploded in recent years with information about "pseudo-scientific nonsense."

"We are the main critics in the U.S. and around the globe for paranormal claims. Since L.A. is the media center of the country, we decided to develop a center there. . . . The paranormal and the religious claims are big business and this is a response by the scientific community," Kurtz said.

The new Hollywood Boulevard office will not detract from the Sweet Home Road office which employs about 30 people, Kurtz said.

The local center is home to several smaller member organizations publishing both Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry. The center's two magazines have a global circulation of more than 100,000 subscriptions, a 66 percent increase from 60,000 five years ago.

The new office will largely be responsible for media relations and setting up interviews for scientists to appear on television and radio programs. The Center for Inquiry wants to make sure dissenting views are always included in television and radio broadcasts, particularly as media ownership consolidates into the hands of large corporations.

Since people are naturally curious about the occult and paranormal, stations try to sell such content, Kurtz said.

"One thing that's very popular right now is communicating with the dead and people who say they can put you in touch with the dead," Kurtz said.

That would be the realm of Edward and his "Crossing Over" program. The syndicated show is being carried by an increasing number of television stations, including a recent move into the Buffalo market on WUTV Fox-29.

Edward could not be reached to comment. Calls to a phone number on the official John Edward Web site were not answered.

Donald Moran, general manager of WUTV Fox-29, said the show has only been on the air here for a couple weeks and it is too early to judge local ratings.

"The show has been very successful on the Sci-Fi Network, where it's been running, and we committed to it in syndication," Moran said. "Whether or not he actually talks to the dead, you'll have to take that up with John Edward."

Glenn Sparks, a communication professor at Purdue University who studies the impact of media on public opinion, said efforts to balance programming content will help viewers develop more informed opinions.

"The way information is presented by the media does have an impact on what people believe," said Sparks, who has contributed articles to Skeptical Inquirer. "When you've got an area where there is uncertainty (such as the paranormal), that really opens the door for media messages to have an influential role.

"We've really seen a surge in this type of entertainment, particularly on cable television, for a number of reasons. One, there's just so much more programming time to fill," Sparks said.

The Center for Inquiry is trying to raise $5.8 million to renovate a former American Automobile Association office on Hollywood Boulevard as its West Coast home. The money is being sought through individual contributions and small foundation grants.

The local not-for-profit center has an annual budget of about $6 million from subscription income and donations. The center's magazines do not sell advertisements.

The Sweet Home Road office, a converted house, receives visitors from around the globe. Some come to conduct research in the center's extensive library.

The collection includes the complete works of Madame Blavatsky, a Russian expert on the disputed underwater colony of Atlantis, a 1796 printing of Thomas Paine's "The Age of Reason," and numerous works by secular humanist Robert G. Ingersoll.

The center also houses an odd collection of memorabilia relating to the abominable snowman, ghosts, vampires and other Halloween fare.

Scientists associated with the center, ranging from the late Isaac Asimov to DNA discoverer Francis Crick, have investigated claims of witches, alternative medicine, faith healing, weeping icons and miracles.

Along the way, the center has managed to annoy a wide range of people, from priests to ufologists.

"We're controversial. We're the critics. We question everything," Kurtz said.

The truth is out there.


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