Rationally Speaking

In Pursuit of Positive Skepticism

An Evening With Paranormalists

Why do people believe weird things?

A few days ago a local skeptic group here in Brooklyn organized a roundtable discussion on the concept of the paranormal. We thought this was going to be a chat about what people mean by that term, how one goes about investigating alleged cases of paranormal happenings, and so on. We were in for a surprise. Turns out that a couple of real believers in the ghosts and the afterlife showed up, a somewhat rare opportunity to sit down with “the other side” and have a probing conversation to find out about what brings people to believe weird things.

“The psychic told me things nobody could have known” was one of the first refrains of the evening. To which of course I immediately asked for examples of these allegedly unknowable things that the psychic somehow managed to know. The person in question explained that the psychic had described her grandfather’s character in fairly precise ways, though she couldn’t recall an example of any specific character attribute that was so unusual about her grandfather. Moreover, it turns out that she had never actually known her grandfather, and that her conviction that the psychic got it right was based on her comparing notes taken at the time with a conversation she had a year later with her sister, who had known their grandfather (presumably, as a child). Hmm, not exactly the sort of thing that would clinch a court case.

It got worse. The husband of this nice woman (himself a very nice man), said he absolutely knew that a dear friend of theirs who had died was still around, making his presence felt. Naturally, I asked for an example of such an extraordinary happening. “Well, one day I felt like a flick behind my ear, and I just knew it was him.” That’s it? No, there was more. His wife one day had been given a penny and had felt a strange sensation in receiving it. Upon turning it over, she discovered that the penny was made in the same year of their friend’s birth. How else would you explain such an extraordinary coincidence?

At that point I trotted out the standard skeptical arguments. I don’t know exactly what happened in those cases, because I was not there and it is not possible to investigate the matter thoroughly enough after all this time. Still, I suggested, you are making an extraordinary claim based on very scant evidence, and I can easily think of very ordinary explanations for what you just told me (e.g., I told them about the technique of “cold reading” by psychics, and another attendee talked about the confirmation bias of remembering hits and forgetting misses — to no avail).

“But you can’t prove it isn’t so.” Right, I cannot, I replied, but you cannot prove that there are no unicorns in the universe either, and yet you probably don’t believe in unicorns, or even seriously entertain the possibility of their existence. In other words, one has to provide positive evidence when making a claim for the existence of a phenomenon; relying on the fact that it can’t be disproved is setting the bar so low that pretty much anything would be able to jump over it.

At this point our paranormalist friends tried yet another common tactic: “But Benjamin Franklin spent the last years of his life trying to get in touch with the dead, and he was a really smart man, so...” I don’t know enough about Benjamin’s biography to actually comment on how he spent his last few years, though there certainly is evidence that he believed in an afterlife(then again, so do most people). But of course the broader point can be defused by simple counterexamples: the astronomer Johannes Kepler was a really smart guy, and yet he believed in astrology. Isaac Newton is considered one of the greatest scientists of all time, and yet he spent more time on alchemic experiments than on physics. And so on and so forth.

We could turn this discussion into a serious debate about epistemology and standards of evidence, but this isn’t what it is all about. We live in a country where a large number of people still don’t believe President Obama is a citizen, despite his birth certificate having been broadcasted all over the airwaves and the internet. On the other side of the political spectrum, plenty of liberals still believe that Bush and Cheney purposely caused 9/11 so that they could start their war on Iraq (as if they actually needed an excuse).

No, the problem is that people want to feel special. Being among the few who “get” that the government is conspiring against the nation, or that the 2008 election was a scam, makes some people feel better about the fact that they really have little or no control over such large events as wars and elections (and indeed, even, largely, over their own lives). At a more personal level, it was clear to me that our paranormalist friends really missed their dead friend, and naturally wanted to believe that he was still around, no matter how flimsy the evidence. I understand, I feel that way about my grandparents too, and it is painful every time I dream of them (which is often) and am reminded that I will never see them again.

But what is the problem with people lowering their critical threshold that much in order to accept comfortable beliefs? I think there is a problem, which is why I started a second blog self-explanatorily entitled “Gullibility is Bad for You.” At a societal level, we see the damage to our political discourse and social fabric that has been done by both the “birthers” and the 9/11 “truthers.” At a personal level, people waste money, time and emotional energy in pursuit of a chimera, and are easily taken advantage of by unscrupulous (or even well meaning but self-deluded) “mediums” and “psychics.”

Still, it is really hard to tell someone that his beloved friend, or mother, or wife is gone, forever. That the only thing that remains is the memories, and even those will only last as long as the people who’ve met the person in question. It’s the perennial red pill vs. blue pill philosophical conundrum that Morpheus puts to Neo in “The Matrix.” For my part, I have decided a long time ago to take the red pill. But it is bitter.

Massimo Pigliucci is a Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York-Lehman College. more...

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