Anthony Gottlieb admires a rigorous refutation of belief in the paranormalby Anthony Gottlieb / March 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
The house magazine of America’s most indefatigable debunkers, The Skeptical Inquirer, once printed a disconcerting letter from a reader. You people, the reader complained, are like boy scouts holding hands round a campfire and reassuring each other that there is nothing out there. He had a point. If sceptics are so sure that the flapping curtain conceals no bogeyman, why do they spend so much time poking it with sticks?
Professor Nicholas Humphrey has a novel solution to the problem of how to deal with supernatural beliefs. He realises that it is no good condemning them as merely stupid: they are too widespread for such a verdict to be convincing. For example, a typical study in England in 1987 suggested that 88 per cent of people believe in some paranormal phenomena. This study did not even include traditional religious tenets such as the belief in life after death, which 71 per cent of Americans and 43 per cent of Europeans have signed up for and which Humphrey puts in the same paranormal drawer as Uri Geller’s bent spoons. Humphrey also sees that sifting through the evidence for, say, extra-sensory perception, and exposing its flaws, is a tactic with limited usefulness. There is always some new study which overcomes the problems which invalidated previous efforts. So, instead, Humphrey offers a calm diagnosis and a universal refutation.
His diagnosis is plausible and goes like this. All magical beliefs rest in one way or another on the idea of mind over matter. Whether it is imparting or receiving information, stopping or starting watches, seeing into the distant future or past, the paranormal mind is marked by its power to override forces by flipping a spiritual switch. Supernatural phenomena are those which claim we can transcend the limitations of our physical embodiment.
As a psychologist, Humphrey is well equipped to discuss the arts of self-deception. The evolution of the brain may also shed some light on the factors which feed superstition. Humphrey mentions the intriguing idea that a tendency to see imaginary connections between events is a by-product of the vital ability to discern patterns in the world. Perhaps our disposition to overestimate the improbability of certain events, thus leading us to infer a cause when there is really only coincidence, is a form of “better safe than sorry” strategy.
Diagnoses of paranormal belief are appropriate only if these beliefs are indeed false.…