Barry Karr is the Executive Director of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is consulted by the media for all things paranormal. Karr has been involved in many investigations including faith healing, UFOs, firewalking, ghosts and many others. He is a published author in two anthology publications, and as an editor of two others. Karr is a proponent of scientific skepticism and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.
|Residence||Buffalo, NY, United States|
|Education||Bachelor of Arts|
|Alma mater||State University of New York|
|Occupation||Executive Director Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and CFO of Center for Inquiry|
His parents are Angelina and Leo Karr of Arkport, NY. Angelina Karr taught speech therapy for five years in Scio before becoming an elementary school teacher at Hornell in Arkport. She served on the school board from 1973-1988 and was active on the New York State Boards Association and president of the Steuben County School Boards Association. Both parents were members of the American Legion. Karr and his four siblings all went through the Arkport school system.
Karr began by stuffing envelopes part-time at CSICOP during his sophomore year in college, and he was hired in their 5th year. After graduation from State University of New York at Buffalo with a political science degree,Paul Kurtz hired Karr full-time as the assistant public relations director. In 2012 Karr was awarded for his 25 years of service and recognized as honorary Trenches winner at the Skeptic's Toolbox. Karr has been involved in many investigations including remote viewing, ghost hunting, firewalking, UFO's, Satanism, faith healing.
About CSICOP, he said: "We approach the paranormal with an open mind... We try to show people that claims are made for all kinds of powers and demonstrate that the evidence is not there to support them." "People are looking for the mystical. It's exciting and fun". As far as proving or disproving God, Karr was interviewed as saying "CSICOP takes no formal stance on the existence of God... some members are skeptical,... and some are deeply religious. There is no religious litmus test for membership in CSICOP." Karr feels that holding a belief in the supernatural and superstition can "detract from the advancement of the human race". People want to make decisions rationally but to do that they need to be aware of science and technology, that does not mix with the supernatural. "We believe before you jump into the realm of the paranormal... you should explore some of the rational alternatives."
Karr is surprised by people who continue to believe in the paranormal when faced with strong evidence that it does not exist. He states that "you can explain 99 out of 100 UFO sightings, and they will still say 'Well what about this one?'" The example Karr often gives to those people is "If you took 100 reindeer to the top of the Empire State Building and started pushing them off, how many do you have to push off before you know they're not going to fly?"
"Newspapers are in the business to sell newspapers, and people love a mystery." Karr has become worried that "mainstream media had fallen into the mode of hype now, explain later." Karr has often asked to test claims of weeping statues but states that "such claims are denied by the churches involved. I think they want people to believe some kind of miracle is going on, I don't think they wanted to hear the truth."
When asked by the Little Rock Gazette for a definition of a secular humanist, Karr answered that it "... is a person devoted to free inquiry in fields of human endeavor. He is committed to a scientific outlook and the use of the scientific method. A secular humanist respects human rights and the freedom of the individual. He has commitment to social justice and an open, pluralistic and democratic society. He believes that man is accountable for his own actions. A secular humanist is not the bogeyman fundamentalists love to hate."
As a part of his work with CSICOP, Karr attended many revivals investigating faith healers such as Peter Popoff, Charles Hunter (The Happy Hunters), Willard Fuller and W. V. Grant. During one event Karr pretended to have back problems and limped to his seat heavily leaning on a cane. Popoff came down the aisle and asked Karr to throw away his cane and "run around" which Karr proceeded to do. The couple next to Karr had brought a severely disabled baby to be cured by the faith-healer (who ignored them throughout the revival); the parents wanted to know why God had "healed" Karr and not their baby. Karr explained that he did not have back problems and could walk fine before the healing. The parents were devastated, as if a miracle had been wasted on someone "who didn't even deserve it".
According to Karr, the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion sent investigators to Popoff's faith healing sessions in Houston and San Francisco. One person got close enough and saw a receiver in Popoff's ear. The investigation led by James Randi used more than $20,000 worth of scanning equipment and "were able to intercept the frequency and tune in to what was being said." They discovered that Popoff was being fed information by his wife who was using hot-reading based on cards that people had filled out when they arrived at the faith healing event. Karr said that when confronted, Popoff first denied it, then later said "that people were aware of it" and "now admits to using the transmitter, saying it is the 'age of television'". Karr said that one member of the Bay Area Skeptics, Don Henvick, "has been healed five times by Popoff. Once was in Detroit when dressed as a woman, he was healed of uterine cancer."
During a documentary on the Happy Hunter faith-healer husband and wife team, Karr interviewed people who had attended a service. One wheelchair-bound woman believed she was not healed because "Maybe I'm not entitled to it". Karr discovered that the faith-healers always win, sometimes people will feel a little better after being healed and if they don't, then it isn't the fault of the preacher or of God, it is because their faith isn't strong enough, or because God does not want to heal them.
From March 21 to April 3, 1988 Karr along with other members of CSICOP visited China by invitation of Lin Zixen who was the editor of Science and Technology newspaper in Beijing. Zixen's son had attended Buffalo State University with Karr, Lin Zixen had become concerned about young peoples' belief in the paranormal in China. The CSICOP committee traveled to Xian and Shanhi where they gave lectures answering many questions from "crowds of people" who showed a lot of enthusiasm.
One test was of a Qigong master who claimed he could move people from a distance without seeing the subject. To control for the possibility that the subject was moving when viewing the "incantations", the master was placed in a sound-proof room. The committee had the Qigong master exercise his powers at "regular intervals depending on the flip of a coin." They discovered that the subject moved when the master did the incantations, and also when he did not. Karr said, "I don't think it's a deliberate deception... it's a very strong belief system."
In Xian and Shanhi the committee tested children who were reported to be able to see through envelopes and repair broken match sticks (without touching them). Karr reports that the powers did not "stand up to scientific scrutiny."
Because of his role as the Executive Director for Skeptical Inquirer Magazine and as a proponent of scientific skepticism, his investigations and the many years working for CSI, the media often asks for his expertise when they are working on a story concerning the paranormal.
Dealing with people who default to the ghost answer has been frustrating to Karr. In 1987 he received a call from a woman who claimed that ghosts turned on her water faucet, looked into her second story window, and then finally threw a Happy Meal across the room. When Karr gave her more common scenarios, maybe the 7-year-old son turned the water on and does not want to admit it, the peering ghosts could be reflections of lights from cars or house lights. When questioning her about the flying meal he discovered that the woman had not seen the Happy Meal fly from the top of the refrigerator. No matter what answer he tried to give, she wanted to hear only the ghost answer. He finally told her that as the ghosts had not harmed her or her family, they were unlikely to do so and to call back if anything else happened and he would personally investigate. The moral of the story Karr tells the reporter is that "'You can not argue with believers and win. It is best to ask questions, offer alternative viewpoints and let them make their own conclusion.'"
CSI gets two or three stories of weeping statues or sightings of Jesus or Mary each year. "Claims of miracles are not surprising". "'Once a story gets out, hits the news, it's really not surprising these things pop up. It creates a bit of a snowball effect. I've got a file an inch thick - Jesus's face on a tortilla, on a soybean in Ohio. There was a tree stump with the Virgin Mary on it. Periodically, there will be pictures of clouds with the Virgin Mary and Jesus in them. My favorite is the face of Elvis in smoke at a rock concert. People see what they want to see.'" "Last year in Wilkes-Barre (PA) the image of the Virgin Mary was sighted on the side of a house. It turned out to be an image for a street light bounced through a window... It becomes a Rorschach test you can see what you like." "[That] no weeping icon has ever passed muster with the committee."
Asked about psychics, "If all we had to do is think about it, crime would have been cleaned up a long time ago." "People get readings when they're troubled, so it's easy for a psychic to say something like, 'Be wary of the man you're seeing because he's going through some changes,' and convince you that she knows all about you... The point at which it becomes harmful or dangerous is if you start to base your decisions on the advice or you can't make a decision until that advice is given." "Clients often strain to connect psychics' general statements with specific incidents in their lives." "The problem parapsychologists face is that science is based on the reproduction of experiments, and so far parapsychologists have been unable to support any of their claims thorough repeatable tests... We don't rule out the possibilities, but we think the evidence should be very solid." Concerning newspapers that print psychic predictions for the upcoming year, Karr states that "Their predictions rarely come close to occurring... 1992 was not a very good year for psychics. Then again no year is good for them, every year the media publishes their predictions and every year their predictions are wrong." Asked about a psychics prediction for Dolly Parton for 1993, Karr answered that he doubted her breast would explode, on stage as predicted or elsewhere.
In 1993 Karr stated that he has been hearing psychics predict that there will be a catastrophic earthquake in the spring. "California has earthquakes all the time. But at some point, there's going to be a big earthquake. And I predict... the psychics will be crawling out of the woodwork, saying 'See I told you that was going to happen.'"
Voices on EVP's are commonly used as evidence of life after death by most ghost hunters. Karr believes that these recordings are not good evidence, no scientist would accept them as there are too many ways to make noises appear on a recording. The ghost hunters tell you what to listen for, and then that is what you hear. "Plus there is a certain level of expectation." "Don't take it seriously... We have never found any evidence to support the theory that there are ghosts. It's fine for Halloween, but people shouldn't believe (in ghosts) the other 364 days of the year."
Concerning UFO's, "In nearly 50 years of reported UFO sightings, no one has ever produced any scientific credible evidence to show we have alien spaceships in our skies". "Karr theorizes that UFOs and extra-terrestrials are an extension of the folklore handed down over the centuries. 'Elves, leprechauns, and gnomes have been part of dreams as have experiences of visits in the night by spirits. So as our world becomes more technology-driven, our fantasies become more sophisticated. Today, its aliens from another planet. We're not disputing the fact that people see things but so often those things are misperceived or their memory plays tricks on them.'" Karr states that CSICOP is not saying that life does not exist outside Earth, many people do believe that it does. "The question is, are they visiting us?" he goes on to say that he himself hopes "alien life does visit earth. I would love to be there when they arrive". "There is not one artifact that proves the existence of life on other planets". "If they are coming, why do they show up and then disappear?"
One rumor that was investigated by CSI was about the supposed Roswell crash. The rumor was that President Truman had signed an executive order covering it up. According to Karr, they were able to show after looking at documents at the Truman library that the signature was snipped and pasted from unrelated documents. Concerning Area 51, "There are about four or five guys running around the country, and they all have a different shtick about Area 51." He wonders how they can claim to have convincing evidence and still disagree with each other.
In 1984 CSICOP began sending letters to newspapers asking them to carry a disclaimer when printing horoscopes. "Ten years ago you wouldn't have seen any (disclaimers)". In 1993 Karr stated that 60 newspapers are now carrying a disclaimer. Most papers state that horoscopes have no scientific fact supporting them and that reading your horoscope is just for entertainment only.
Karr feels that the media contributes to belief in the paranormal. By stating that strange things happen on a Lunar effect with people and animals acting oddly, with no evidence that anything odd is occurring. Karr says that Skeptical Inquirer has investigated that claim many times. "It may seem [like] full moons spur weird occurrences... research indicates otherwise" many surveys have shown that there is no change in homicide rates to support that claim.
Interviewed by The Oregonian Karr related that one of the successes of CSI had been an investigation into seminars led by self-help gurus claiming they can firewalk because of their mental skills. The investigation showed that people who had not taken the course were also able to walk on the hot coals. Anyone who walks over the coals quickly will not have burned feet. "The only people getting burned were the poor suckers paying upwards of $300". "The coals on which self-help gurus walked aren't good heat conductors, I'd like to see these people try to walk over hot frying pans, which are."
About urban legends they "fulfill society's demand for gossip and rumor, reinforce or validate beliefs and inspire talking about shared unexplainable experiences. And since they reveal taboos and obsessions, Karr said American urban legends tend to be about death, cars, hygiene or money."
"People worry more than necessary about 'signs' of Satanism", according to Karr. "A town will find a dead animal in a junkyard and go into hysteria".
"The notion of Harmonic Convergence is a beautiful idea, the joining together of multitudes of people, all concentrating on the very noble desire for peace and harmony. On another level, it can be quite disturbing when you realize... these people have given up on the real world." "People have to accomplish things. They can't wait for a universal energy force."
Jerry Andrus and Karr 1991
Karr with David Koepsell (on left) listening to English translation in China