Belief in the Paranormal or Pseudoscience

Posted by Atticus on Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Wow, What a start to 2011 it has been. RiPA have conducted over 15 investigations and its only mid-March!
But the time has come for the investigations to slow down and in-house research to begin. We will still be doing the field studies but a lot of our time will be dedicated to examining extraordinary claims.

But why? Does it matter if people believe in astrology, extrasensory perception (ESP), or that aliens have landed on Earth? Are people who check their horoscopes, call psychic hotlines, or follow stories about alien abductions just engaging in harmless forms of entertainment? Or, are they displaying signs of scientific illiteracy?

Concerns have been raised, especially in the science community, about widespread belief in paranormal phenomena. Scientists (and others) have observed that people who believe in the existence of paranormal phenomena may have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. Their beliefs may indicate an absence of critical thinking skills necessary not only for informed decision making in the voting booth and in other civic venues (for example, jury duty, but also for making wise choices needed for day-to-day living. 

Specific harms caused by paranormal beliefs have been summarized as:
a decline in scientific literacy and critical thinking;

i) the inability of citizens to make well-informed decisions;

ii) monetary losses (psychic hotlines, for example, offer little value for the money spent);

iii) a diversion of resources that might have been spent on more productive and worthwhile activities (for example, solving society’s serious problems); 

iv) the encouragement of a something-for-nothing mentality and that there are easy answers to serious problems, for example, that positive thinking can replace hard work; and

v) false hopes and unrealistic expectations.

For a better understanding of the harms associated with pseudoscience, it is useful to draw a distinction between science literacy and scientific literacy. The former refers to the possession of technical knowledge. Scientific literacy, on the other hand, involves not simply knowing the facts, but also requires the ability to think logically, draw conclusions, and make decisions based on careful scrutiny and analysis of those facts.

The amount of information now available can be overwhelming and seems to be increasing exponentially. This has led to "information pollution," which includes the presentation of fiction as fact. Thus, being able to distinguish fact from fiction has become just as important as knowing what is true and what is not. The lack of this ability is what worries scientists (and others), leading them to conclude that pseudoscientific beliefs can have a detrimental effect on the well-being of society.

So just how common Is belief in the paranormal? 

Belief in the paranormal seems to be widespread. Various polls have shown that.

As many as one-third of Americans believe in astrology, that is, that the position of the stars and planets can affect people’s lives. In 1999, 7 percent of those queried in a NSF survey said that astrology is "very scientific" and 29 percent answered "sort of scientific."  Twelve percent said they read their horoscope every day or "quite often"; 32 percent answered "just occasionally."

Nearly half or more believe in extrasensory perception or ESP 
Between one-third and one-half of Americans believe in unidentified flying objects (UFOs). A somewhat smaller percentage believes that aliens have landed on Earth.

Other polls have shown one-fifth to one-half of the respondents believing in haunted houses and ghosts, faith healing, communication with the dead, and lucky numbers. Some surveys repeated periodically even show increasing belief in these examples of pseudoscience.

Belief in most—but not all—paranormal phenomena is higher among women than men. More women than men believe in ESP (especially telepathy and precognition), astrology, hauntings, and psychic healing. On the other hand, men have stronger beliefs in UFOs and bizarre life forms, for example, the Loch Ness monster. In the NSF survey, 39 percent of the women, compared with 32 percent of the men, said astrology is "very" or "sort of" scientific; 56 percent of the women, compared with 63 percent of the men, answered "not at all scientific."

Not surprisingly, belief in astrology is negatively associated with level of education. Among those without high school diplomas, only 41 percent said that astrology is "not at all scientific." The comparable percentages for high school and college graduates are 60 percent and 76 percent, respectively. 

Do the Media Have a Role in Fostering Belief in the Paranormal?

Scientists and others believe that the media—and in particular, the entertainment industry—may be at least partially responsible for the large numbers of people who believe in astrology, ESP, alien abductions, and other forms of pseudoscience. Because not everyone who watches shows with paranormal themes perceives such fare as merely entertaining fiction, there is concern that the unchallenged manner in which some mainstream media portray paranormal activities is exacerbating the problem and contributing to the public’s scientific illiteracy.

In recent years, studies have been undertaken to determine whether televised depictions of paranormal events and beliefs influence television viewers’ conceptions of reality. Although the results of these studies are tentative and require replication, all of them suggest that the way television presents paranormal subjects does have an effect on what viewers believe. For example, those who regularly watch shows like Most Haunted, TAPS, Sightings, and Psychic Detectives were significantly more likely than those who did not watch these programs to endorse paranormal beliefs. 

Shows about paranormal phenomena, including UFOs, without disclaimers are more likely than those with disclaimers to foster belief in the paranormal. 
Some fans of The X-Files find the show’s storylines "highly plausible," and also believe that the government is currently conducting clandestine investigations similar to those depicted on the series.

What Is Being Done To Present the Other Side? 

The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) is a nonprofit scientific and educational organization started in 1976 by scientists (including several Nobel laureates), members of the academic community, and science writers. Members of CSICOP, frequently referred to as skeptics, advocate the scientific investigation of paranormal claims and the dissemination of factual information to counter those claims. CSICOP’s mission includes taking advantage of opportunities to promote critical thinking, science education, and the use of reason to determine the merits of important issues.

Also CSICOP is a great resource which RiPA use frequently. 

The Council for Media Integrity, an educational outreach and advocacy program of CSICOP, was established in 1996. Its objective is to promote the accurate depiction of science by the media. The Council, which includes distinguished international scientists, academics, and members of the media, believes it is necessary to counteract the entertainment industry’s portrayal of paranormal phenomena because:
television has such a pervasive impact on what people believe;

i) an increasing number of shows are devoted to the paranormal, and they attract large audiences;

ii) a number of shows use a documentary style to promote belief in the reality of UFOs, government coverups, and alien abductions;

iii)opposing views are seldom heard in shows that advocate belief in the paranormal;

iv) some shows contribute to scientific illiteracy by promoting unproven ideas and beliefs as real, instilling a distrust of scientists and fostering misunderstanding of the methods of scientific inquiry.

v) To promote media responsibility—particularly within the entertainment industry—and to publicize irresponsibility—the Council established two awards:

The "Candle in the Dark Award" is given to television programs that have made a major contribution to advancing the public’s understanding of science and scientific principles. winners include: Bill Nye—The Science Guy and Scientific American Frontiers.

The "Snuffed Candle Award" is given to television programs that impede public understanding of the methods of scientific inquiry. Winners of this award include Dan Akroyd, for promoting the paranormal on the show Psi-Factor, and Art Bell, whose radio talk-show Cost-to-Coast promoted belief in UFOs and alien abductions.

In its efforts to debunk pseudoscience, the Council also urges TV producers to label documentary-type shows depicting the paranormal as either entertainment or fiction, provides the media with the names of expert spokespersons, asks U.S. newspapers to print disclaimers with horoscope columns, and uses "media watchdogs" to monitor programs and encourage responsibility on the part of television producers.

Finally, various skeptics groups and renowned skeptic James Randi have long-standing offers of large sums of money to anyone who can prove a paranormal claim. Randi and members of his "2000 Club" are offering more than a million dollars. So far, no one has met the challenge...........