Thursday, November 15, 2012

How pervasive is belief in weird things?

If there is one thing that skeptics are obsessed with, it is investigating weird things (by weird things, we mean the paranormal, urban legends, conspiracy theories, etc…).  Many of us spend a good bit of time going to conventions, listening to podcasts, and reading up on everything from big foot to perpetual motion machines.
To non-skeptics, our fascination with weird things way seem a bit odd. After all, we generally don’t believe this sort of stuff, so why would we spend so much time thinking about aliens and astrology? The reason is simple. For a very long time, belief in weird things has pervaded our culture. When we go to check out at the grocery store, we see our monthly horoscopes.  When we go over to our friend's house, they try to convince us that alternative medicine cured their cold.  When we turn on the television, we see a show with “experts” talking about how aliens built the pyramids. To the reality obsessed skeptic, this cultural stranglehold is unacceptable.
You may object to our disgust and write these beliefs off as just a few people having some harmless fun. Unfortunately, this type of sentiment could not be more wrong. Not only are these beliefs harming people (which will be the subject of another post), but they are incredibly common. For example, a 2001 Gallup poll shows that many Americans believe in the paranormal and the occult. Some of these numbers include:
  • 52% astrology
  • 46% extrasensory perception
  • 19% witches
  • 35% ghosts
  • 22% aliens have landed on Earth
  • 67% actually had a psychic experience.
  • 42% communication with the dead. 
Upon seeing these numbers, you may wish to dismiss them.  “That poll was conducted over twenty years ago.  There is no way that many people still believe in such nonsense.”  It should be noted however that a more recent 2005 Gallup poll shows that 3 out of 4 Americans believe in the paranormal. This includes: 
  • 41% ESP
  • 37% haunted houses
  • 32% ghosts 
  • 31% telepathy
  • 25% astrology
  • 21% witches
If this has not scared you by now, it gets even worse.  The aforementioned numbers and anecdotes do not even scratch the surface when it comes to weird things. Some other prevalent beliefs that I have yet to mention include: dowsing, the Bermuda triangle, homeopathy, auras, reiki, fung shui, tarot cards, Nostradamus, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, creationism, intelligent design, planet Nibiru, JFK assassination conspiracy theories, global warming denial, holocaust denial, emotions in plants, perpetual motion machines, astral projection, ghost hunting, and anti-vaccination hysteria.

For example, a newer (but more narrow) poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University shows that "36 percent who think that President Obama is hiding information about his background and early life, 25 percent who think that the government knew about 9/11 in advance, and 19 percent who think the 2012 Presidential election was stolen (link)." Wow.

With all of these beliefs everywhere, you may be wondering, how do I talk to people about these beliefs without sounding like a dick? For the answer to this question, you will have to wait for another blog post. In the meantime, I recommend reading two books that will help you answer some of the most pervasive weird beliefs that people have.  These are Richard Wiseman’s Paranormality and Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things. Both works cover the arguments used by proponents of weird things and the psychological faculties that make them possible in the first place.

1 comment:

  1. I'd just like to point out that there is some pagans who identify themselves as being "witches" when following certain branches of Wiccan beliefs. Not everyone who believes in Wicca likes the term, but some do use it to identify themselves.
    Like-wise some use the practice of "casting spells," and it is a religious ritual found in their beliefs the same as you might find communion as a ritual practice in other beliefs.

    Therefore saying "witches don't exist," is much the same as saying "Christians don't exist."