Archive for March 12th, 2012

March 12, 2012

America, the Beautiful (And Nutty): A Skeptic’s Lament

America, the Beautiful (And Nutty): A Skeptic’s Lament

Almost one-third of Americans believe the ancient Mayan prediction of global calamity this December is “somewhat true,” according to a recent National Geographic poll. The prediction is based on a huge stone calendar wheel but exact nature of the disaster — already the subject of major motion pictures and fodder for a Super Bowl ad of remarkably black humor — is an open question. Perhaps an apocalypse will be sparked by expensive gasoline or another Charlie Sheen tantrum. Or maybe those early Mexicans just ran out of stone.

I’m a magician by profession, now retired and dedicated to communicating the facts about the so-called paranormal and the occult, and the supernatural people, claims, and stories that abound. My organization — The James Randi Educational Foundation — serves as a source of information about what I call “woo woo.” We work with a large number scientists, statisticians, and experts to evaluate and debunk for the benefit of the media, scientists, writers, students, and the merely curious.

Our efforts have brought JREF to the forefront of the world skeptical movement, following in the footsteps of Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Martin Gardner, Richard Feynman, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, and so many others — and I’m proud to say that I knew them all well.

We do this day in and day out. And humans aren’t born crazy. But somehow nonsense science has what seems like a permanent foothold in our culture.

Not all dissonance is perilous. The general public accepts some obviously false beliefs: whales are fish, we only use about 10 percent of our brains, “free energy” is just around the corner for us all.

Wrong, but not nuts.

 

Not all dissonance is perilous. The general public accepts some obviously false beliefs: whales are fish, we only use about 10 percent of our brains, ‘free energy’ is just around the corner for us all. Wrong, but not nuts.

Now consider this: Some 70 percent of Americans believe in some aspect of the paranormal — ESP, devils, ghosts, homeopathy, and spiritual healing. More than 25 percent believe there are humans who can “psychically” predict the future. About 20 percent believe it’s possible to talk to dead people (and that the dead talk back).

In other words, a sizable portion of the U.S. population accepts as a given that an unseen world of magical paranormal power exists, and all that remains is to discover how to take advantage of it. Some pay handsomely in that vain — I mean this in both senses of the word — pursuit.

Personality traits, psychological motivation, flawed cognition, emotional instability, local demographics, social influences — all these could contribute to what might be called Lack of Reason Syndrome. Let’s add as well: basic ignorance. But experimental psychology has yet to fully explain why essentially rational beings seem to need to be at least a little irrational.

But we humans are gullible and not terribly perceptive. In my world these handicaps, and an audience’s innate desire to believe, combine to, well, make magic. The trick is really over before it begins because the magician has, without your knowledge, manipulated your behavior to suit his needs.

That’s just good fun. The stakes in the real world are much higher.

While the science establishment hasn’t always been vociferous enough about paranormal silliness and schemes, make no mistake: My respect for real science knows no bounds. Yes, my work inescapably points out where science has, for one reason or another, sometimes failed to police its own. But I believe — I know — that science is a glorious, righteous pursuit.

And so I begin my work here at Wired Opinion with a direct, firm, personal statement of my own convictions, derived from 60+ years of close association with dedicated scientists and the responsible media:

  • Those very popular mythical beasties — ESP, psychokinesis, prophecy, etc. — don’t exist.
  • Homeopathy is a dangerous farce.
  • Faith-healing is a deadly joke.
  • Perpetual motion is a juvenile dream.
  • Uri Geller is a four-trick magician.
  • The dead don’t talk to anyone.
  • Religion is an ancient notion we need to get over.

There!

Having identified the illness, the question is, how able is the patient to participate in a cure? Figuring that out is part science, and part art.

The advertising industry knows this. They know that consumers will often respond to pricing tricks that do not bear up under the barest scrutiny. A 2009 Cornell University study found that we tend to interpret precise numbers that are bigger than rounded numbers as being lower: Participants, for example, incorrectly judged $395,425 to be smaller than $395,000.

The skeptical mind boggles …

Let me make something else clear: It’s easy to confuse “skepticism” and “cynicism.” A skeptic doubts, and requires evidence rather than the silver tongue of a charming presenter. A cynic believes that no one says or does anything that yields neither profit nor advantage.

I ask that our readers remain skeptics about what we present to you, so that we play ball on a level field.

That said, stand back. We at JREF have some interesting things to share …

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