Battling Psychics and Ghosts: The Need for Scientific Skepticism

Through countless questions from college and university students about aliens, ghosts, and a wide variety of New Age and alternative health and psychological treatments, I've realized the need to teach scientific skepticism, and that using examples of pseudoscience -- claims that appear to be scientific but are not -- can be an invaluable resource.
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Many years ago I was asked to give a talk to incoming university students on the nature of psychology. As a social psychology professor, I had a lot of interesting material that I was sure students would find fascinating, from blind obedience to authority to the everyday persuasion techniques of salespeople. Yet to my surprise, at the end of my presentation, I had but two questions from the students: "Does The Secret really work?" and, "Can psychics really read minds?" For those unfamiliar with The Secret, it is a bestselling book and film that promotes the idea that we can have whatever we want merely by thinking about it, all couched in New Age terms and a gross misrepresentation of quantum physics. And as for psychics, there has yet to be any solid experimental evidence of extrasensory ability, even though there is $1 million on the line (more on that later). I initially thought that students asked these questions because they did not have much formal training in science at this point in their academic career, though I soon came to realize otherwise.

College and university students, from freshmen to seniors, have asked me similar questions, along with queries about aliens, ghosts, and a wide variety of New Age and alternative health and psychological treatments. Through countless questions on these topics, I've realized the need to teach scientific skepticism, and that using examples of pseudoscience -- claims that appear to be scientific but are not -- can be an invaluable resource for helping students become discerning consumers of real-world claims.

We are all bombarded with pseudoscience when we turn on the television and see programs on ghost hunting, go online and read claims that we can be cured by downloading medicine from our computers (if you find this hard to believe, check out, or go to our local health food store and find advertisements for homeopathic remedies that supposedly cure everything from cancer to the fear of thunderstorms. People who buy into these pseudoscientific claims are neither gullible nor lacking in intelligence. Instead, they have often not been taught the skills to critically evaluate information. Although the line between science and pseudoscience is not invariably clear-cut, Scott Lilienfeld and I provide some tools to help distinguish between the two here.

The late astronomer and science writer Carl Sagan referred to scientific skepticism as the ability to approach claims with an open mind, but to only accept these claims once they have survived rigorous scientific scrutiny. But even students who excel in their courses may be unable to separate good information from bad, especially outside the classroom. Researchers have found that even after taking two or three science courses, most students display only small declines in pseudoscientific belief. Although students may master the facts and figures learned in their science classes, many have not learned to appreciate the process of science. In particular, most do not grasp the key point that science is not a body of knowledge but an approach to knowledge that emphasizes subjecting claims to careful scrutiny. As a consequence, many students do not possess the thinking tools to distinguish between science and pseudoscience.

Fortunately, there are a number of excellent resources available for anyone who is interested in improving his or her ability to become a scientific skeptic. For example, the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), founded by former world-class magician and prominent skeptic James "The Amazing" Randi, is a great starting point. The JREF also features the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, whereby the organization will pay $1 million to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal or supernatural activity under controlled, experimental settings. Although there have been hundreds of takers, no one has yet come close to winning the prize. Television programs such as Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, though crude at times, shines a light on a variety of pseudoscientific claims, and prominent skeptics such as Phil Plait, Richard Wiseman, and Michael Shermer have written a large variety of superb articles that are readily available in print and online. Tim Minchin, a comedian and songwriter, has produced several hilarious and insightful songs on the nature of science and skepticism. A good starting point is his ode to Oberg's dictum, the notion that we should keep an open mind, but not so open that our brains fall out. These resources promote scientific thinking skills in an engaging and entertaining way.

In my university courses I use a number of strategies to help my students boost their scientific skepticism. The goal is to create scientific skeptics, not cynics. For example, rather than discuss the lack of evidence for ghosts, I ask students to go ghost hunting -- using proper methodological procedures. In this exercise students soon start to see that some of the ghost hunts they watch on television are not scientifically sound. In this and other ways I challenge students to question all extraordinary claims. This does not mean that students should dismiss an extraordinary claim out of hand but that they should require extraordinary evidence before accepting it. As another example, I bend a metal spoon in class, supposedly with the power my mind, and ask students to generate hypotheses concerning how I did it. Rarely do students attribute my spoon bending to psychic abilities; instead they say, quite correctly, that the spoon I used was tampered with prior to my demonstration. The point of the demonstration is to encourage students to generate these ideas when they are confronted with any extraordinary claim, be it one regarding ESP, miracle medical cures, or people who claim to speak to the dead. (As Michael Shermer reminds us, speaking to the dead isn't difficult; it's getting the dead to speak back that's the hard part.) Whenever students are presented with an extraordinary claim, I encourage them to think of the spoon bending and ask a simple question: What is the best explanation for this phenomenon?

We are all well-served to acquire and practice skeptical thinking skills, not only to help us distinguish science from pseudoscience but to become better consumers of information in all aspects of our lives.

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