Even as we comfortably settle ourselves into the 21st Century with the leaps and bounds of scientific knowledge available for all to see, belief in the supernatural does not seem to be in much of a decline. People regularly make assertions that they have seen ghosts, believe in psychic ability, pray to God(s) and cannot fathom the notion that there is not something else beyond this Earthly realm.
Why is this the case, even in the face of huge mountains of evidence against such notions, and absolutely zero scientific evidence in their favour? Two main schools of thought are in vogue at the moment. The first is that human beings are inherently gullible and will believe in stories passed on through the ages. The second, and preferred, is that as human beings (we are just intelligent animals) we are predisposed to wanting to know the answers to things, and interpret world events, which leads us occasionally (and erroneously) to follow answers into the unproven theories of spirits and the supernatural. Our need to know the answer is our biggest flaw in terms of choosing ignorance over information. Understanding the science behind something, or sometimes saying “I don’t know” is harder than believing in ghosts, gods or psychic powers. Furthermore, hallucinations and misinterpretation is hugely common, and account for most of the ‘phenomena’ reported. The general explanation for all of these phenomena is that since our normal experience is of stimuli coming into the brain from the outside, when a part of the brain abnormally generates these illusions, another part of the brain interprets them as external events. Hence, the abnormal is thought to be the paranormal. In reality, it is just brain chemistry.
Much like when I criticise religion or alternative medicine, when I bring up the notion that there is no evidence for such beliefs, people around me commonly say “but what’s the harm?” or “it’s just a bit of light entertainment”. Well, often there isn’t any harm, but unfortunately the fraudulent antics and anti-science propaganda frequently pushed down people’s throats can also have real outcomes. These outcomes can be both physically and psychologically disastrous for the victims of the heinous frauds commonly perpetrated by Psychics and Mediums. Click this link to read about over 1000 people who have been harmed in one way or another through this irrational irresponsible behaviour.
Psychic Sally is a perfect example of this. She makes copious amounts of money selling out theatres across the country or appearing on TV pushing the idea that she can talk to one of your dead relatives, and in doing so invariably tell you something that will evoke strong emotions. Not only does this require a belief in the afterlife, which would crush the laws of physics and chemistry as we know them, but a belief that only ‘some’ people have such a ‘gift’. It also requires a belief that she can directly contact, on demand, 1 dead person from more than 100 BILLION that have died in the last 50,000 years.
The most important question, to me, is a simple one. Where is the evidence? Real evidence, not your anecdotes of Sally telling you about Uncle Pete who once worked for the Post Office and had a heart attack – all of which she could magically read from you. Take, for example, a common piece of cold reading: (info from Skepdic.com)
[A] good manipulator can provide a reading of a total stranger, which will make the stranger feel that the manipulator possesses some special power. For example, Bertram Forer has never met you, yet he offers the following cold reading of you:
Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary and reserved. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept others’ opinions without satisfactory proof. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. Disciplined and controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside.
Your sexual adjustment has presented some problems for you. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a strong need for other people to like you and for them to admire you.
Here’s another reading that you might find fairly accurate about you:
People close to you have been taking advantage of you. Your basic honesty has been getting in your way. Many opportunities that you have had offered to you in the past have had to be surrendered because you refuse to take advantage of others. You like to read books and articles to improve your mind. In fact, if you’re not already in some sort of personal service business, you should be. You have an infinite capacity for understanding people’s problems and you can sympathize with them. But you are firm when confronted with obstinacy or outright stupidity. Law enforcement would be another field you understand. Your sense of justice is quite strong.
The last one was from astrologer Sidney Omarr. He’s never even met you and yet he knows so much about you (Randi 1982: 61). The first one was taken by Forer from a newsstand astrology book.
Cold reading is almost embarrassingly generic, but as mentioned, our feeble human minds place meaning on the words and extrapolate what is said into what we want to hear. It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s human nature, and it can be hard to train ourselves to think critically. The accuracy of psychic predictions is grossly overrated and many people do not understand how psychics use techniques such as hot and cold reading. The accuracy of premonitions and prophecies is also grossly exaggerated because of lack of understanding of confirmation bias and the law of truly large numbers; their accuracy is also exaggerated because of ignorance about how memory works, especially about how dreams and premonitions are often filled in after the fact. If a psychic prepares their performance to include all these techniques then they are going to leave a lot of people impressed. Never forget that most of the people who go to mediums either in private or at shows already believe in the phenomena and therefore are even more predisposed to its effects.
Even if I can’t convince you to think critically about the above, or give up your desire for there to be something more than we could ever prove with science, then at least ask yourself this one question: Why has no one claimed the $1,000,000 prize from James Randi? He is offering this amount of money to ANY person who can show ANY type of supernatural ability. He is offering: “a one-million-dollar prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power.” His rules were little more than what any reasonable scientist would require. If you are a mental spoon bender, you couldn’t use your own spoons. If you claimed to see auras, you’d have to do so under controlled conditions. If you claimed to be able to do remote viewing, you wouldn’t be given credit for coming close in some vague way. If you were going to demonstrate dowsing powers, you would have to be prepared to be tested under controlled conditions. If you were going to do psychic surgery or experience the stigmata, you would have to do so with cameras watching your every move. The answer is simple and obvious.
The skills employed by mediums, psychics, clairvoyants and so on are tricks that have been developed into a fine art in the same, skilful way as a top class magician or illusionist. However, this is all they are. Not ALL psychics are outright frauds though. Some are simply deluded about their ‘gift’, but these deluded types are not the most skilled performers filling out theatres, making lots of money and having the huge impact on peoples lives as the Psychic Sallys and James Van Praaghs out there.
There’s no shame in changing your mind in the face of evidence. There’s nothing wrong with looking at people’s claims with a critical mind. Why then, are people so determined to hold onto such irrational beliefs and allow themselves to be conned when the evidence is so clearly against it? Because we’re human, I suppose, and humans are often quite lazy.