A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. (David Hume)
I’ve written here from time to time about some of the notable appeals to unreason that seem to gain some public currency, such as the Mayan calendar doomsday prediction, scheduled for December 21 of this year. (Think of the money you can save with no holiday shopping!) A group of doomsday forecasters was honored with the 2011 Ig®Nobel Prize in mathematics, for illustrating the need for care in using mathematics to make predictions — of the end of the world, for example.
The “Wired Science” blog at Wired has an entertaining new opinion article by James Randi, in which he discusses our love affair with the irrational. Randi is a retired professional magician, and the founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation, which investigate claims of paranormal, supernatural, and occult ideas.
I’m a magician by profession, now retired and dedicated to communicating the facts about the so-called paranormal and the occult, and the supernatural people, claims, and stories that abound.
Randi cites a poll conducted by National Geographic that found that almost one-third of Americans believe the Mayan doomsday predictions are “somewhat true”. He also points out that some common beliefs, while clearly wrong, are not especially pernicious: many people think that whales are fish, or that we only use about 10% of our brains.
There are some irrational beliefs, though, that are potentially harmful, especially when they affect significant decisions.
Now consider this: Some 70% of Americans believe in some aspect of the paranormal — ESP, devils, ghosts, homeopathy, and spiritual healing. More than 25% believe there are humans who can “psychically” predict the future.
There are doubtless a number of factors that contribute to this, as Randi points out: ignorance, cultural influences, flawed cognition, and emotional instability all probably play a part. The answer is not blind faith in “science”, but a healthy degree of skepticism about all novel claims.