weird stuffThe short answer, is that people want to believe. According to Brian Cronk, a professor of psychology at Missouri Western State University, “The human brain is always trying to determine why things happen, and when the reason is not clear, we tend to make up some pretty bizarre explanations.”

Why is this the case? “It is an artifact of our brain’s desire to find cause and effect. That ability to predict the future is what makes humans ‘smart’, but it also has side effects like superstitions [and] belief in the paranormal.”

According to the Livescience, today, media coverage of the paranormal on the Internet, television, and radio, help to perpetuate myths and folklore. Fiction and belief often masquerade as fact and news. And according to a 2005 Gallup poll, three-quarters of those surveyed believe in at least one paranormal phenomenon, including 41 per cent who are convinced of ESP, 32 per cent of ghosts, 31 per cent of mind reading, 26 per cent of clairvoyance and 25 per cent of astrology.

Spend some time online and you can find many other highly questionable beliefs like the idea that space aliens landed at Roswell, New Mexico, that the earth was created less than 10,000 years ago, that the Holocaust never occurred, and that 9/11 was orchestrated by the US government to incite America into war. The list is very long.

Why do so many people believe such weird things?

michael shermer

Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic Magazine, tells us that, “All humans seek patterns. That’s our nature. We are also storytellers because it helps us find meaning in a chaotic world. In order to survive, we have evolved to find cause-and-effect relationships in nature, and then weave a plausible story to explain them. Our ancestors who identified the pattern linking the seasons to animal migrations ate better and left behind more offspring. But because believing that the rain gods can be appeased through rituals isn’t fatal, we also have inherited magical thinking. Add to this the fact that many of these beliefs make us feel better, meet some emotional need, promise miracle cures or instant wealth, and in general appeal to our emotional brains and bypass our rational brains.”

When someone is firmly set in their belief, then, even when presented with scientific evidence, it is very difficult to get them to let go of their beliefs. To true-believers, shady and unsupported explanations which sometimes suggest somewhat causal connections between events are more appealing than well-supported, scientific explanations which do not provide comfort to the individual.

Scientists and critical thinkers are then left with an impossible task: proving something does not exist. You can prove an object like rock is there. You can’t prove that the Loch Ness Monster, UFOs, or a ghost is not there.

So then, what are we, as pattern-seeking, cognitively biased humans, supposed to do? How do we filter out fact from fiction? Shermer gives his own version of a Baloney Detection Kit. Use the list below to help yourself figure out if there is merit behind a claim, belief, or seemingly weird idea:

  • Is the person making this claim a qualified expert in the field, or a quack? People who are not trained in a subject can make contributions, but it is rare.
  • Does the source often make similar claims? Paranormalists and members of fringe groups have a habit of going well beyond the facts.
  • Have the claims been verified by another source? Typically pseudoscientists will make statements that are unverified, or verified by a source within their own circle. Who is checking the claim, and who is checking the checkers?
  • How does the claim fit with what we know about how the world works? When considered in this manner, get-rich quick schemes and stock-market secrets never sound so good.
  • Has anyone gone out of the way to disprove the claim, or have they only sound evidence to confirm it? This is known as confirmation bias, or the tendency to ignore negative evidence. This is why we need the methods of science, which include the attempt to prove yourself wrong.
  • Does the preponderance of evidence converge to the claimant’s conclusion? The theory of evolution, for example, is proven through a convergence of evidence from a number of independent lines of inquiry. No one fossil proves anything.
  • Is the claimant employing accepted rules of reason and tools of research? UFOlogists suffer this fallacy in their continued focus on a handful of unexplained atmospheric anomalies and visual misperceptions while ignoring the fact that the vast majority of sightings are easily explained.
  • Has the claimant provided a different explanation for the observed phenomena, or is it strictly a process of denying the existing explanation? This is a classic debate strategy – criticize your opponent and never affirm what you believe in order to avoid criticism. Creationists do this to great effect. But to be legitimate, positive evidence in favor of your idea must also be presented.
  • If the claimant has offered a new explanation, does it account for as many phenomena as the old explanation? For example, skeptics who argue that lifestyle, not HIV, causes AIDS do not explain nearly as much of the data as the HIV theory does, such as the rise in AIDS among hemophiliacs shortly after HIV was inadvertently introduced into the blood supply.
  • Is there extraordinary evidence for the extraordinary claim? Evidence is key. Normal claims need normal evidence, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

What Michael Shermer below, as he speaks to the same points at TED.

Oh Yeah? Science isn’t perfect either!

Browsing the JREF‘s FAQ while researching the Million Dollar Challenge (proving you have parapsychological powers for a million dollars), I found a great answer to the following question: Scientific papers have been written supporting paranormal events and talents. Therefore, how can you deny them?

James RandiiRandi and his team answer the challenge with the following: “Scientists can be wrong — sometimes, very wrong. The history of science is replete with serious errors of judgment, bad research, faked results, and simple mistakes, made by scientists in every field. The beauty of science is that it corrects itself by its own nature and design. By this means, science provides us with increasingly clearer views of how the world works. Unfortunately, though science itself is self-correcting, sometimes the scientists involved do not correct themselves. And there is not a single example of a scientific discovery in the field of parapsychology that has been independently replicated. That makes parapsychology absolutely unique in the world of science.”

Prove Yourself

For those who are so entrenched in their beliefs that they themselves believe they have special powers or abilities, it’s not necessary to have the argument here. James Randi offers any believers, or purveyors of belief, to prove themselves – and he’ll cut you a cheque for a million dollars.

Here are the terms:

“At JREF, we offer a one-million-dollar prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. The JREF does not involve itself in the testing procedure, other than helping to design the protocol and approving the conditions under which a test will take place. All tests are designed with the participation and approval of the applicant. In most cases, the applicant will be asked to perform a relatively simple preliminary test of the claim, which if successful, will be followed by the formal test. Preliminary tests are usually conducted by associates of the JREF at the site where the applicant lives. Upon success in the preliminary testing process, the “applicant” becomes a “claimant.””

So far, no one has passed the preliminary tests, even though Randii has invited some of the “premier” personalities, like Sylvia Browne, to take the test.

Seems like a quick and easy million bucks if you’ve got “the power” – but why has nobody succeeded yet? You be the judge.

The Unfortunate Conclusion

Humans tend to believe weird things without scientific merit because we seek patterns, we seek to explain things, we are uncomfortable not understanding the world around us, and because we are stubborn. It’s hard to change someone’s mind – try it. It’s no easy task. And so, it falls on our teachers and mentors to train future generations to think critically and use “baloney detection kits” when necessary.