Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding
Belief in the Paranormal or Pseudoscience
Does it matter if people believe in astrology, extrasensory perception (ESP), or that aliens have landed on Earth? Are people who check their horoscopes, call psychic hotlines, or follow stories about alien abductions just engaging in harmless forms of entertainment? Or, are they displaying signs of scientific illiteracy?
Concerns have been raised, especially in the science community, about widespread belief in paranormal phenomena. Scientists (and others) have observed that people who believe in the existence of paranormal phenomena may have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. Their beliefs may indicate an absence of critical thinking skills necessary not only for informed decisionmaking in the voting booth and in other civic venues (for example, jury duty ), but also for making wise choices needed for day-to-day living.
Specific harms caused by paranormal beliefs have been summarized as:
- a decline in scientific literacy and critical thinking;
- the inability of citizens to make well-informed decisions;
- monetary losses (psychic hotlines, for example, offer little value for the money spent);
- a diversion of resources that might have been spent on more productive and worthwhile activities (for example, solving society’s serious problems);
- the encouragement of a something-for-nothing mentality and that there are easy answers to serious problems, for example, that positive thinking can replace hard work; and
- false hopes and unrealistic expectations (Beyerstein 1998).
For a better understanding of the harms associated with pseudoscience, it is useful to draw a distinction between science literacy and scientific literacy. The former refers to the possession of technical knowledge. (See "Understanding Terms and Concepts" in the section "Public Understanding of Science and Technology.") Scientific literacy, on the other hand, involves not simply knowing the facts, but also requires the ability to think logically, draw conclusions, and make decisions based on careful scrutiny and analysis of those facts (Maienschein 1999; Peccei and Eiserling 1996).
The amount of information now available can be overwhelming and seems to be increasing exponentially. This has led to "information pollution," which includes the presentation of fiction as fact. Thus, being able to distinguish fact from fiction has become just as important as knowing what is true and what is not. The lack of this ability is what worries scientists (and others), leading them to conclude that pseudoscientific beliefs can have a detrimental effect on the well-being of society. (See "An Ill-Informed and Poorly Educated Public" in the section "The Relationship between Science and the Media: Communicating with the Public.")
Belief in the Paranormal: How Common Is It?
Belief in the paranormal seems to be widespread. Various polls have shown that
- As many as one-third of Americans believe in astrology, that is, that the position of the stars and planets can affect people’s lives (Harris 1998, Gallup 1996, and Southern Focus 1998). In 1999, 7 percent of those queried in the NSF survey said that astrology is "very scientific" and 29 percent answered "sort of scientific." (See figure 8-24.) Twelve percent said they read their horoscope every day or "quite often"; 32 percent answered "just occasionally." (See appendix tables 8-38 and 8-39.)
- Nearly half or more believe in extrasensory perception or ESP (Gallup 1996; Southern Focus 1998). According to one poll, the number of people who have consulted a fortune-teller or a psychic may be increasing: in 1996, 17 percent of the respondents reported contact with a fortune-teller or psychic, up from 14 percent in 1990 (Gallup 1996).
- Between one-third and one-half of Americans believe in unidentified flying objects (UFOs). A somewhat smaller percentage believes that aliens have landed on Earth (Gallup 1996; Southern Focus 1998).
Other polls have shown one-fifth to one-half of the respondents believing in haunted houses and ghosts (Harris 1998; Gallup 1996; Sparks, Nelson, and Campbell 1997), faith healing (Roper 1994, USA Today 1998), communication with the dead (Gallup 1996), and lucky numbers. (See appendix table 8-40.) Some surveys repeated periodically even show increasing belief in these examples of pseudoscience (USA Today 1998).
Belief in most—but not all—paranormal phenomena is higher among women than men. More women than men believe in ESP (especially telepathy and precognition), astrology, hauntings, and psychic healing. On the other hand, men have stronger beliefs in UFOs and bizarre life forms, for example, the Loch Ness monster (Irwin 1993). In the NSF survey, 39 percent of the women, compared with 32 percent of the men, said astrology is "very" or "sort of" scientific; 56 percent of the women, compared with 63 percent of the men, answered "not at all scientific." (See appendix table 8-38.)
Not surprisingly, belief in astrology is negatively associated with level of education. Among those without high school diplomas, only 41 percent said that astrology is "not at all scientific." The comparable percentages for high school and college graduates are 60 percent and 76 percent, respectively. (See appendix table 8-38.)
Do the Media Have a Role in Fostering Belief in the Paranormal?
Scientists and others believe that the media—and in particular, the entertainment industry—may be at least partially responsible for the large numbers of people who believe in astrology, ESP, alien abductions, and other forms of pseudoscience. Because not everyone who watches shows with paranormal themes perceives such fare as merely entertaining fiction, there is concern that the unchallenged manner in which some mainstream media portray paranormal activities is exacerbating the problem and contributing to the public’s scientific illiteracy.
In recent years, studies have been undertaken to determine whether televised depictions of paranormal events and beliefs influence television viewers’ conceptions of reality (Sparks 1998). Although the results of these studies are tentative and require replication, all of them suggest that the way television presents paranormal subjects does have an effect on what viewers believe. For example,
- Those who regularly watch shows like The X-Files, Unsolved Mysteries, Sightings, and Psychic Friends were significantly more likely than those who did not watch these programs to endorse paranormal beliefs (Sparks, Nelson, and Campbell 1997).
- Shows about paranormal phenomena, including UFOs, without disclaimers are more likely than those with disclaimers to foster belief in the paranormal. (Sparks, Hansen, and Shah 1994; Sparks and Pellechia 1997).
- Some fans of The X-Files find the show’s storylines "highly plausible," and also believe that the government is currently conducting clandestine investigations similar to those depicted on the series (Evans 1996).
What Is Being Done To Present the Other Side?
The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) is a nonprofit scientific and educational organization started in 1976 by scientists (including several Nobel laureates), members of the academic community, and science writers. Members of CSICOP, frequently referred to as skeptics, advocate the scientific investigation of paranormal claims and the dissemination of factual information to counter those claims. CSICOP’s mission includes taking advantage of opportunities to promote critical thinking, science education, and the use of reason to determine the merits of important issues.
The Council for Media Integrity, an educational outreach and advocacy program of CSICOP, was established in 1996. Its objective is to promote the accurate depiction of science by the media. The Council, which includes distinguished international scientists, academics, and members of the media, believes it is necessary to counteract the entertainment industry’s portrayal of paranormal phenomena because:
- television has such a pervasive impact on what people
- an increasing number of shows are devoted to the paranormal, and they attract large audiences;
- a number of shows use a documentary style to promote belief in the reality of UFOs, government coverups, and alien abductions;
- opposing views are seldom heard in shows that advocate belief in the paranormal; and
- some shows contribute to scientific illiteracy by promoting unproven ideas and beliefs as real, instilling a distrust of scientists and fostering misunderstanding of the methods of scientific inquiry.
To promote media responsibility—particularly within the entertainment industry—and to publicize irresponsibility—the Council established two awards :
- The "Candle in the Dark Award" is given to television programs that have made a major contribution to advancing the public’s understanding of science and scientific principles. The 1997 and 1998 awards went to two PBS programs: Bill Nye—The Science Guy and Scientific American Frontiers.
- The "Snuffed Candle Award" is given to television programs that impede public understanding of the methods of scientific inquiry. The 1997 and 1998 winners were Dan Akroyd, for promoting the paranormal on the show Psi-Factor, and Art Bell, whose radio talk-show promoted belief in UFOs and alien abductions.
In its efforts to debunk pseudoscience, the Council also urges TV producers to label documentary-type shows depicting the paranormal as either entertainment or fiction, provides the media with the names of expert spokespersons, asks U.S. newspapers to print disclaimers with horoscope columns, and uses "media watchdogs" to monitor programs and encourage responsibility on the part of television producers.
Finally, various skeptics groups and renowned skeptic James Randi have long-standing offers of large sums of money to anyone who can prove a paranormal claim. Randi and members of his "2000 Club" are offering more than a million dollars. So far, no one has met the challenge.
Pseudoscience has been defined as "claims presented so that they appear [to be] scientific even though they lack supporting evidence and plausibility." In contrast, science is "a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed and inferred phenomena, past or present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation" (Shermer 1997). Paranormal topics include yogic flying, therapeutic touch, astrology, fire walking, voodoo magical thinking, Uri Geller, placebo, alternative medicine, channeling, Carlos hoax, psychic hotlines and detectives, near death experiences, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, homeopathy, faith healing, and reincarnation (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal).
Because of several well-publicized court cases, considerable attention has been focused on the role of science in the courtroom and the ability of judges and juries to make sound decisions in cases involving highly complex, science- or technology-based evidence. (See Angell 1996 and Frankel 1998.)
A fairly common example that reflects a dearth of critical thinking skills is the number of people who become victims of get-rich-quick (for example, pyramid) schemes.
According to J. Randi, "acceptance of nonsense as mere harmless aberrations can be dangerous to us. We live in an international society that is enlarging the boundaries of knowledge at an unprecedented rate, and we cannot keep up with much more than a small portion of what is made available to us. To mix our data input with childish notions of magic and fantasy is to cripple our perception of the world around us. We must reach for the truth, not for the ghosts of dead absurdities" (Randi 1992).
In the 1996 Gallup Poll, 18 percent of respondents said they read an astrology column regularly.
At the First Amendment Center’s forum on science and the media, one of the participants cited what he called the "most frightening" results of a poll of students in Columbia’s graduate school of journalism: 57 percent of the student journalists believed in ESP; 57 percent believed in dousing; 47 percent in aura reading; and 25 percent in the lost continent of Atlantis (J. Franklin cited in Hartz and Chappell 1997).
In an earlier NSF survey, 6 percent of the female—compared with 3 percent of the male—respondents reported changing their behavior because of an astrology report.
A survey of 1,500 first-year college students found that 48.5 percent of arts—and 33.4 percent of science—students considered both astronomy and astrology scientific (De Robertis and Delaney 1993).
Examples of pseudoscience that receive a considerable amount of coverage in the mainstream media are unproven health-related therapies. Also, as Carl Sagan pointed out, almost every newspaper has an astrology column, but not many have even a weekly column devoted to science.
This result could simply mean that people who believe in the paranormal are more likely than others to watch such programs. However, the findings are consistent with the conclusions of earlier experiments conducted by the same researcher (Sparks 1998).
CSICOP’s official journal The Skeptical Inquirer is a vehicle for disseminating and publicizing the results of scientific studies of paranormal claims.
According to one study, scientists are portrayed more negatively than members of any other profession on prime-time entertainment shows. They are more likely to be killed or to kill someone. In fact, the study found that 10 percent of the scientists on fictional TV shows get killed and 5 percent kill someone (Gerbner 1987).
The award titles were inspired by Carl Sagan’s book, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Sagan 1996).