AMHERST, N.Y. (AP) – For years the Center for Inquiry and its determined hoax-busters have taken on mysteries such as crop circles and ghost sightings.

While intriguing to some, to the center they are byproducts of a public too willing to turn a blind eye to science.

That’s why, as the center undertakes a major expansion, there is a special focus on getting people to appreciate a scientific outlook, said chairman Paul Kurtz. The center hopes to raise $26 million in the next four years to add on to its suburban Buffalo world headquarters.

“The United States is the leading scientific and technological power on the planet, with amazing breakthroughs, yet the general public is basically illiterate about science,” said Kurtz, 78.

The dangers go beyond a tendency to fall for urban legends and Internet chain letters, Kurtz said. More serious, he believes, is a willingness to embrace unproven alternative medical treatments and to reject advances like embryonic stem cell research, opposed by many on religious grounds.

Kurtz, his 60 employees and fellows that have included Carl Sagan and Andrei Sakharov, follow a motto of applying reason and science to all areas of human life.

Nothing is off limits – the center is about to launch the Journal for the Scientific Examination of Religion. More than a dozen other journals and magazines are already being published, with titles such as the Skeptical Inquirer, Free Inquiry and The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine.

Neil Young, 20, was at the center this week, taking a class on the ethics and politics of punishment, forgiveness and reconciliation.

“There’s no aspect of life in which critical thinking is not beneficial,” said Young, an intern at the center’s Los Angeles location, one of a dozen far-flung branches that also include New York City, Germany, Mexico, Nepal and Nigeria.

Young thinks the center’s efforts are laudable, but acknowledges that achieving them may be an uphill battle.

South of Buffalo, at the spiritualist community Lily Dale, where resident psychics draw thousands of visitors for readings and advice each year, the center’s work is taken in stride.

“We always welcome people to question because by questioning we’re able to educate,” said Sue Glasier, Lily Dale president. “We believe in free will so people come with open minds and they come searching.”

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