TAMPA — Virginia Levy walked into the library downtown to prove she was psychic. A group of doubters called the Tampa Bay Skeptics questioned the claims of people like her and had set up a challenge. Levy came to meet it. There sat a row of boxes. Could she guess which contained crystals? She was given seven chances. Seven times she failed. It wasn't inability that did her in, she said recently, the bitterness still evident in her voice. It was the bespectacled host of the project, Gary Posner, an unbeliever who she said patronized her, creating an atmosphere filled with negative energy. She purposely chose the wrong box each time, she said, then left in a huff. Today, she lives in Arizona, but she never forgot Posner. He hasn't forgotten her either. To him, Levy was further proof that he did the right thing when he founded the Skeptics 20 years ago. They meet every few months in a sterile office building to talk fact versus belief. They invite psychics to prove themselves. They say no one ever has.
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Posner's passion for skepticism grew from his own experience of being duped.
As a boy, he never related much to his Jewish heritage or the Hebrew stories he learned at synagogue, but he clung to a wide-eyed wonder about UFOs, perhaps to fill a void, he said.
His fascination with flying saucers held strong until his late 20s, when he began reading reports by famous UFO skeptic Phillip Klass. It changed his life.
"I was just looking for the truth," said Posner, now 58. "I thought I'd found the truth when I was younger. I found out I'd been hoodwinked."
Never again, he vowed.
In 1988, he decided people around here needed a group to help measure their beliefs against reality. So he started the Tampa Bay Skeptics. At a recent meeting, an African-American man talked about how few black people are openly skeptic, and lamented the anti-evolution philosophy at his daughter's school.
Posner showed old video clips of his appearances on local news shows. The group advertises its meetings, but no psychics showed up to challenge them.
That's not surprising, though. Posner has become somewhat of a pariah in an area that has seen its share of so-called miracles. The local physician has served as the main spokesman for the group, which has about 70 members (mostly men). An average meeting draws 15 to 20 members.
In 1989, thousands flocked to a Tarpon Springs church to see a Virgin Mary painting that reportedly cried real tears and still showed the stains. Some in the crowd criticized Posner when he gave skeptical commentary to reporters at the scene.
When an image of Jesus appeared on a Bradenton church wall after a cleaning in 2000, Posner went on a TV talk show and argued with a University of South Florida religious studies lecturer about truth and spiritual beliefs.
But the Skeptics focus more on paranormal and "fringe science" claims like astrology, extrasensory perception and UFOs than religion. Much like consumer protection groups, the Skeptics say they seek truth as a counterweight to the paranormal.
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No one has been able to make the Skeptics less skeptical, but it's not for lack of trying.
Not long after the group formed, it began offering a $1,000 reward to anyone who could demonstrate supernatural powers. About a dozen people have come forward over the years, but all walked away empty-handed.
"These aren't scam artists," Posner said. "They're believers. They've convinced themselves and their friends that they have these special abilities."
"We're not here to debunk," said Skeptics chairman and local lawyer Terry Smiljanich. "We're here to say it's your obligation in making the claim to prove it to us and the world."
The Skeptics say they want to be proved wrong. They're fascinated with unexplained phenomena but say they won't believe in anything without scientific evidence or statistics to back it.
Meanwhile, the $1,000 still sits in their hands. They get lots of inquiries from psychics or self-proclaimed healers across the country, but few have made the trip.
"Our money is safe," Smiljanich said.
In 1999, James D. Moore Jr. of Gainesville couldn't convince them that his gold-detecting "crazy rod" had magical powers, especially when it didn't detect gold-filled boxes any better than a coin flip would. And in 2005, Ron Pierce from Alabama claimed he could diagnose illnesses over the phone, but the Skeptics say he guessed only one out of 10.
At a Skeptics meeting in March, a father brought his 19-year-old son from Orlando to show off the young man's telepathic skills. They left disappointed, the Skeptics said, wondering why the young man's powers failed that one time.
Levy, the psychic who took the $1,000 challenge at the library, knows the feeling.
"They called it a double-blind test," she said by phone. "What I called it was a scam."
The group's negative and mocking attitudes hampered her abilities, she said.
"What they're doing is using the laws of attraction," Levy said. "They're actually using the same powers that psychics use, except in reverse."
The experience was appalling, she said, adding that the Skeptics are "working on behalf of the dark side."
She still believes in her powers. Today, she organizes spiritual journeys and "vision quest adventures" in the Arizona desert.
She feels sorry for the Skeptics and anyone who tries to break their "spell."
"They're taking real gifted people and making a mockery of their gifts."
Maybe so, the Skeptics concede, but they continue to stick by a simple motto:
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.
Emily Nipps can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.