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Paul Kurtz, skeptic of paranormal claims, can test hypotheses — or not — with death at 86

Paul Kurtz, who became a national leader in efforts to debunk paranormal phenomena and pseudoscience — what he called “insidious” gimmicks that had blossomed into an industry profiting on ignorance, died Oct. 20 at his home in Amherst, N.Y. He was 86. …

Dr. Kurtz taught philosophy for 25 years at the State University of New York at Buffalo and drew broader influence through his thousands of media appearances promoting the need for skepticism and rational thinking. He counted among his supporters the astronomer Carl Sagan, authors Isaac Asimov and Martin Gardner, and the behaviorist B.F. Skinner. …

His influence and prominence grew with the spread of cultlike religious movements in the 1970s …. “There is always the danger that once irrationality grows, it will spill over into other areas,” he told the New York Times in 1977. “There is no guarantee that a society so infected by unreason will be resistant to even the most virulent programs of dangerous ideological sects.”

Dr. Kurtz was disturbed by a growing tendency of news media outlets to give what he considered uncritical coverage of psychics, fortunetellers, astrologers, and sightings of UFOs and Bigfoot. …

In 1987, Dr. Kurtz was asked by the Chicago Tribune what he would do if he ever encountered God. “I’d immediately pass out pamphlets, asking God to change the furniture in the universe and reorder it in a more just way,” he said, before adding: “This is hypothetical, of course.”


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