A recent article in Newsweek Magazine by Sharon Begley titled, “Why We Believe,” (November 3, 2008) was both informative and frightening. It was informative in that it discussed the various reasons why otherwise normal people (at least on the surface) believe in the paranormal. I really didn’t know much about paranormal experiences, other than the fact that I wanted to avoid people who had them or believed in them. Now, according to the article, I should be avoiding 90% of the population of the United States. The article stated that, “periodic surveys by Gallup and other pollsters, fully 90 percent of Americans say they have experienced such things or believe they exist.” This also might explain how George W. Bush got elected twice.
Throughout my life I have heard about people who believe in flying saucers, alien abductions, ghosts, evil spirits, and other paranormal phenomenon. Mental telepathy, ESP, haunted houses, and psychokinesis (moving things with your mind) have always been a novelty to me. I am amused by these things, while at the same time believing full well that they don’t exist. However, I once dated a woman who seemed to periodically experience ESP. She also periodically experienced PMS, and sometimes it was hard to tell the difference. At least the latter was explainable.
The general definition of paranormal phenomena is phenomena that have no scientific explanation, but it is a bit more complicated than that. The origins of the universe, string theory, and lots of other things do not have good scientific explanations, but they are not considered paranormal. These things do have scientific theories to back them. Not so with telepathy, alien abductions and ghosts. The fact that so many people believe in things that have no basis beyond fantasy is a rather scary thought in and of itself.
“Step on a crack and break your mother’s back,” was one of many childhood jokes falling into the category of paranormal. How did that ever get started? Walking under a ladder may bring bad luck if the person on the ladder falls on you, but what about bad luck from opening an umbrella indoors? My grandmother firmly believed that it was bad luck. At least she never saw a flying saucer, but she did think the Catholics were plotting to take over the world.
The Newsweek article scared me by reporting that, according to a Gallup poll, some 40% of Americans believe it is possible that aliens have abducted people. Back in the 1980s it was only 25%. Evidently people are getting dumber by the decade. I think we need to get a list of these people and ban them from voting. The book “Why People Believe Weird Things,” by Michael Shermer, as well as the Newsweek article, explain that people in general are more irrational than rational. The article says that this is especially noticeable in people’s voting behavior. It gave me an “Ah ha” moment.
It is human nature to give meaning to things we don’t clearly understand. The article stated it best: “The universal human need to find meaning and purpose in life is stronger and more basic than any attachment to empiricism, logic or objective reality.” Believing in fate, God, or that life is predestined, gives one a framework in which to feel more comfortable, regardless of how stupid it might appear to others.
Since 90 percent of people believe in the paranormal, that means that only one out of ten people reading this will like it. I guess I’ll have to live with that. However, if you have seen an image of the Virgin Mary on a pumpkin pie, or your house is haunted, I’d rather not hear from you. And please don’t vote.