A sceptic's view of the paranormal (1992)

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A sceptic's view of the paranormal (1992)
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    A SCEPTIC'S VIEW OF THE PARANORMAL The New England Times, July 8, 1992, p. 6. By William Grey* *Dr Wi lliam Grey was foundation President of Canberra Skeptics, and inititiated a national survey of belief in astrology conducted by the National Social Science Survey at the Australian National University. In the last twenty years or so there has been an upsurge of interest in psychic and paranormal  phenomena. The tabloid press and weeklies are a  both symptom and a cause of this remarkable increase in national credulity. There are no national figures for the full range of  paranormal enthusiasms, which cover such disparate domains as telepathy, precognition, clairvoyancy, faith healing, psychic surgery, water divining, levitation, numerology, biorhythms, crystal therapy, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, astral travelling, channelling, New Age phenomena, alternative medicine  —  and more besides. But thanks to the  National Social Science Survey of the ANU we have reliable data about one popular area of paranormal enthusiasm  —   belief in astrology. Between 1987 and 1991 belief in astrology increased nationally from 16 per cent to nearly 30 per cent  —  almost doubling in the space of four years. Astrology is a good example of a delusory belief system, by which I mean a set a claims about why things happen which turns out on inspection to have no foundation. Of course astrology has passionate  advocates; but the flat earth movement and economic rationalism have their passionate advocates too. There have been numerous detailed tests of astrological claims. One of the best was by Shawn Carlson, published in Nature (Volume 318) in 1985. When subjected to careful scrutiny, astrology turns out to be a tissue of error, fantasy, illusion, wishful thinking, self-deception and fraud. Of course there is nothing wrong with reading your astrology column as fantasy entertainment, but harm can come to a lad or lass if they take these claims seriously. The ANU survey also revealed strong correlations of  belief with sex, educations and age, with greater credulity occurring in women, the poorly educated and the young. Moreover these effects are additive, so that young poorly educated women are most credulous, and older educated men most sceptical. It is interesting to speculate about the causes of the upsurge in credulity, and the gender bias. I suspect that the changing pattern of belief is the product of a number of independent factors. One possible cause is that people who who do not feel in control of their lives may be more inclined to  believe that their destinies are controlled by outside influences. If women (for various reasons) find their lives are more subject to forces which are beyond their control than men, that could explain the higher level of acceptance of astrology among women. And in times of economic hardship these fatalistic  patterns may become more pronounced in the community quite generally. The increase in belief may be partly related to the recession. Another suggestion for the upsurge in credulity is an increasingly anti-science mood, probably produced  by accurate perceptions of the socially and environmentally destructive impact of our science- based technologies. An unfortunate, but intelligible,  side-effect of an increasing disquiet about science is susceptibility to nonsense. And the decline in the acceptance of religion throughout the present century may have opened up niche opportunities for credulous belief systems (though this decline appears to have reached a limit in recent years and appears now to have been reversed). Religion provides a bulwark against many manifestations of credulity. As G.K. Chesterton remarked, when people cease to believe in God they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything. There is a national society, Australian Skeptics, who maintain a watchful and critical eye over the whole gamut of paranormal claims. They are the  paranormal branch of the consumer protection movement. The society has a standing offer of $20 000 for anyone who can demonstrate any  paranormal power under controlled conditions. No one has yet demonstrated that they possess any such  power, and the reward is still unclaimed. Australian Skeptics also bestow an annual "Bent Spoon" award (named in honour the skilled illusionist and charlatan Yuri Geller) for the most outrageous or deluded psychic or paranormal claim for the year. The 1992 Bent Spoon Laureate is University of New England graduate Allen Roberts, who holds BA and M.Litt degrees from that University. Mr Roberts interests have extended in recent years from the humanities to archaeology, and he was awarded the "Bent Spoon" as a result of some astonishing  pronouncements relating to the alleged discovery of  Noah's Ark. Further information about Mr Roberts' remarkable claims and the work of Australian Skeptics is available from PO Box A2324, Sydney South, NSW 2000
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