1. Focusing on the paranormal
In yesterday’s Guardian, a psychologist, Professor Chris French, explains his peculiar psychological specialty that focuses on the “paranormal” and the extraordinary (Spoon-bending for beginners: Teaching anomalistic psychology to teenagers).
French is in the field of anomalistic psychology (AP), which can be defined as "the study of extraordinary phenomena…, including … those which are often labelled ‘paranormal’.”
AP is not to be confused with the more familiar field of parapsychology (PS), which, in practice, tends to assume the validity of paranormal ideas and seeks evidence to support them. AP, in contrast, “is directed towards understanding bizarre experiences that many people have without assuming a priori that there is anything paranormal involved.”
That is, AP is cautious. And it's skeptical.
Skepticism—an unwillingness to adopt an idea until sufficient evidence is identified, i.e., until, among other things, sources of doubt are overcome—is, and has been, essential to the success of the sciences. In the face of a possibility (hypothesis), the skeptic always looks for possible sources of doubt. Non-skeptics, in the meantime, ignore the sources of doubt, heading straight to belief.
It’s a lot easier.
You'd think that, by now, we would have largely overcome such abject yahooery.
A scientific- (i.e., skeptical-) minded person would never adopt the belief, say, that James Van Praagh actually communicates with the dead--when it remains possible that something else—something more mundane—could be going on that fully explains his performances. Those who have actually studied Van Praagh’s routine observe the expected: that he throws out lots of ideas and then pounces upon those few that seem to cause a reaction in grieving but hopeful audience members.
To the unwary, this can seem astounding.
I love talking about the paranormal and the weird in the classroom. As a logic/critical thinking/philosophy instructor, I also urge my students to be skeptical in the face of extraordinary claims.
Sounds negative, but it isn't. I explain that skepticism isn’t like atheism: the denial of something’s existence. Obviously, it is not like theism either. It is more like agnosticism, which is neither belief nor disbelief. Essentially, agnosticism—or skepticism—is the position one is compelled to take when the evidence is inconclusive. In that situation, both (confident) belief and (confident) disbelief are unreasonable, illogical, a mistake.
So far, I’m a skeptic about Bigfoot (shouldn't it be "Bigfoots"?). Certainly, there is no strong evidence (yet) that Bigfoot exists. But I would be unjustified in confidently declaring the non-existence of B. (Declaring his likely non-existence is another matter; I’m happy to do that.)
Like me, French believes in teaching students about alleged paranormal phenomena:
[Beginning]... next month, potentially thousands of teenagers at schools and colleges throughout the UK will start lessons that deal with telepathy, psychokinesis, psychic healing, near-death experiences and talking to the dead. … From September, anomalistic psychology will be offered as an option … for A-level students from … the largest of the three English exam boards….Why focus on the paranormal and daffy?
Well, French, like me, thinks that a scientific and skeptical approach to the paranormal is a great way to teach critical thinking. (People, including me, are genuinely interested in the paranormal. And young people are naturally attracted to the rejection of “establishment” thinking--and in their benighted world, believing in the paranormal is normal.)
Beyond that, belief in the paranormal is widespread and, says French, it is “deep-seated.” Maybe so. It isn’t something we can ignore.
2. Worrying about Stupid People
People sure do believe in some goofy notions, ridiculous though those notions may be.
Something like that is happening in politics too.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but, these days, we seem to witness the growing political power of the Stupid People contingent (aka the “Republican base,” more or less). You know who I’m talking about: the birthers, deathers, and fans of Sean Hannity. --People who think that gays recruit at college campuses and that college professors like me get up in the morning intent on teaching “socialism” and godlessness.
I’m a little surprised. Don’t these people watch TV? Don’t they read the paper? Do they live on an island? How could they possibly be that clueless?
But wait! Maybe the Stupid People aren’t as numerous as they seem. It’s hard to say. The “mass media” are not some first-rate organization, you know.
Imagine a graduate from the “Columbia School of Broadcasting” (Is it fictional?), a used car salesman, and a fresh graduate of Clown College independently setting out to cover the news in your town. Your knowledge of what goes on there pretty much depends on what these three publish and make available in leaflets that are strewn about.
That’s pretty much our situation, informationwise. So it's easy for myths and exaggerations to get promulgated. Maybe the noisy “town hall” agitators represent nothing more than a few stray dopes and some seriously wily and wicked lobbyists!
My guess, though, is that the Stupid People are numerous, albeit a distinct minority. But minorities with a sneaky (can the stupid be sneaky? 'Fraid so.) strategy can grow and can gradually control groups. If the Stupid People play their cards right, they can manipulate the Republican Party’s Presidential candidate nominating process.
If that happens, we must prepare for things to get weirder. And dicier.
Picture the year 2010. GOP (or independent) Candidate Sarah Palin is preaching to the choir: “President Obama believes in a one-world government, you betcha. He’s pretty much into racism and genocide against the elderly, too. --An' innocent babies! (Loud boos.) He’s working with doctors and dentists and scientologists right this very minute to poison our children with mind-altering homosexuality drugs and vaccines.” (Outrage!)
Then comes the clincher: “I may be just a gun owner and mom, but I think that’s just un-American.”
The crowd explodes. Wild applause. Then: grunting, hooting. Waves.
I can just see one of the Stupid People reading this post. Later, she’ll tell her friends, “Yeah, that liberal professor says he believes in Animalistic Psychology and he wants to teach agnosticism and homosexuality to our kids. I think he’s into Dutch painters too, 'cause he threw in something about one of 'em, so he’s some egghead type. You know whad-I-mean.”
(Staunchly, curtly, and with a knowing look, the friend responds:) “YES I DO.”
Now, how does this “birther” stuff work in the mind of a Stupid Person? Here are some possibilities:
1. It could be true. Sometimes things like this ARE true. So it’s true.People can be pretty clueless and illogical, as any college instructor will tell you. At a certain point, you know, there’s no use arguing with Stupid People. They can be too far gone to be reasoned with, like grizzly bears and boulders. All you can do is stand aside, avoid their spittle and fury.
2. The information I saw on that one website is just incredible. How can you not believe? You can’t argue with fax, and they got ‘em!
3. My minister says I gotta believe this, and he’s never led me astray—remember about that awful Reverend Wright? So I gotta go with it. You gotta trust somebody, put your faith in somethin’. Otherwise, you’re a godless communist like Obama.
4. Well, my Congressman seems to believe in this stuff, so that’s good enough for me, ‘cause he’s important, educated. Plus he’s a church-goin’ man. So there you go.
What if these Stupid People get even more organized and confident and bold? Imagine millions of ‘em standing together and demonizing the President, condemning and glossolalianatin’ about our nation’s godless embrace of homosexuality and socialism.
I have no idea.