I can’t believe I haven’t posted about this yet but I’ve been so busy with life that it keeps slipping my mind.
I saw a new item yesterday that reports the results of a poll indicating that one third of Americans believe in ghosts and UFOs. I suppose a true skeptic would question the validity of the poll to begin with, but let’s keep things simple and assume the results are accurate and representative of the population. There is an interesting element to these kinds of reports: you can’t tell whether they are supposed to be positive or negative. My initial reaction was to think, Are you kidding me? Are there really 100 million people in this country that believe in ghosts and UFOs? But when I took a step back, I realized that meant that there were 200 million people that didn’t believe in ghosts and UFOs.
Then there is the question: is believing in ghosts and UFOs a good thing or a bad thing? On the one hand, belief implies faith and faith, for many people, can be a good thing. On the other hand, if the belief comes without inquiry, without skepticism, it implies a kind of mental laziness, a pattern of raw acceptance, an indication that people will believe anything they are told without question. That can’t be good.
That there has, thus far, never been any evidence that would withstand scientific scrutiny for either ghosts or UFOs implies that people just enjoy believing in these things, and really, where’s the harm in that? And yet, still there’s the question of why no scrutiny?
Mass media is a mirror into time. Watch a motion picture from the 1950s, and you can learn a lot about life in the 1950s, not simply by the subject matter discussed in the film, but in the context of the language used, the topics discussed and not discussed. One hundred years from now, I wonder what people will think about our era. We have dozens of reality TV shows for instance, and they grow increasingly ridiculous. In fact, NBC has a new reality show out called Phenomenon, featuring master spoon bender Uri Geller. The premise of the show is to search for the next Uri Geller, I suppose. And why not? There’s show that search for the next top model, the next action hero, the next pop star, why not the next telekinetic fraud?
I have to pause here and apologize. I have tried to use restraint in writing this post. he11o_sunshine has pointed out to me, gently, that my dogmatic approach to skepticism can be very off-putting and that I have a tendency to mock the beliefs of those whose views I don’t share. I am trying very hard to keep this sound advice in mind, but come on, Uri Geller?
Master magician and debunker James Randi has debunked Uri Geller’s spoon-bending and mind-reading antics on countless occasions. He has shown how Geller performs his “mystical” feats. Randi himself has bent spoons with his mind, and correctly guessed ESP cards from the audience–and then went on to show just how it was done and that it was nothing more than trickery. Geller has yet to accept Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge. (For years, Randi has held $1 million in an escrow account for anyone who can prove, under scientific conditions, their extrasensory abilities. There have been many people who have accepted the challenge and no one who has ever made it past the first round.)
Back to the question of why one-third of Americans believe in ghosts and UFOs. Does the media bear some responsibility for this? With shows like Phenomenon and famous psychics like John Edwards and Silvia Browne, are people tricked into being uncritical about what they see on TV? Or is it a chicken and egg game? Are people already uncritical and these shows are popular because they are a reflection of the uncritical nature of people?
Let me be clear here: I am not opposed to the belief in ghosts or UFOs or even spoon-bending for that matter. My problem is with the uncritical acceptance of these things. History has shown that uncritical acceptance of ideas can be harmful to all of us. For centuries people accepted, without question, silly notions like the effect skin color had on the relative worthiness of a person. It took reasoned biology and enlightened thinkers to show that we are all the same–and still some people doubt this. I don’t “believe” in UFOs because there has never been any evidence to suggest their existence on earth. Anecdotal evidence, as in all sciences, doesn’t count. This doesn’t mean there aren’t little green men out there somewhere, it simply means they’ve never been here, as far as we know. The same goes for ghosts. Ghosts may exist, there may well be an afterlife, but it has never been proved in anyway that meets the rigorous standards set by scientific method.
Who cares? Why should something require proof or the rigors set up by scientific method? The answer is simple: scientific method is the only way we have for learning about the physical world that surrounds us. Everything else is commentary. Scientific method aims for the truth about the universe. Theories are not always right, but once proved wrong they are discarded. This is where science diverges from pseudoscience. Scientists, once proved wrong, must accept new theories and discard old ones. Even the greatest scientists, like Newton, have been revised by later knowledge. But pseudo-scientists stick to their guns in the face of failure. Uri Geller’s trickery has been exposed on numerous occasions and yet he still claims his abilities are supernatural.
Is it possible that someone can bend spoons with their mind? Perhaps. But the fact is we don’t know the answer. No one has ever done it in a way that can be scientifically tested. Well, maybe that’s because it is supernatural after all. Maybe, but things that were once supernatural have been shown to be perfectly natural phenomenon–take the predicting of solar eclipses, for example. Science is flexible, it can learn new rules, it can adapt and adjust. But scientific method is rigid for a reason. Adaptations to the rules of science come at a heavy price and a big part of that price involves skepticism. Perhaps there are laws of nature that we are not aware of that allow us to bend spoons. If so, we will never learn those laws if we are not about to constantly question what we see, break it down to basics, and understand how it really works.
For now, I’m comforted by the fact that it is only one-third of Americans that believe in ghosts and UFOs because it means that two-thirds are skeptical or don’t care. It all gets back to the media slant. The same article, could have been titled, “Poll: two-thirds skeptical of ghosts, UFOs”. Even with the same information in the article, what a different spin that would have been!