Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
Aren’t we proud of how rational we are? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof! Critical thinking is very important! Use logic! Deduce the answer! The scientific method is how science should be done! We need to approach this rationally! Those primitive people with their primitive beliefs are so pathetic and uncivilized and backwards and superstitious and illogical. How much better we are than they are.
So highly do we regard rational thought that even those with belief systems that are understood as belief systems feel the need to explain them in a rational manner. So we have creationism, for example. There is really no practical need for creationism because all of evolution can be simply dismissed with the idea that God created the illusion of evolution to test our faith. But even some of those who rely on that faith cling to the idea that their faith is based on something rational, so they create the illusion of a science to satisfy this need.
Rational thought rules Western society. . . . Or so we think. The truth is that when we probe a little deeper we find a lot of irrationality behind the so called rational thought. Let’s take the most famous “rational” statement that most people have heard: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Is that really true? No, actually, it’s not. Extraordinary claims require the same proof that everything else does. We do not raise the bar for evidence for some things, but not for others. Some people may want more proof than is ordinary to satisfy their skepticism, but this is because claims that they deem extraordinary are only that way because they do not understand or believe them. It is their beliefs that make the claim extraordinary, not the claim itself. Ordinary proof is enough to make a rational decision about any claim.
The basic problem with the idea of extraordinary claims and extraordinary proof is that these criteria are highly subjective and no one can say exactly what those might be. It is going to vary from person to person depending on their particular viewpoints and prejudices. If we take the subject of psychic phenomena for instance, (for some strange reason, this is the first thing that popped in my head.) In a 1990 Gallup poll 93% of Americans polled believed in one or more of 18 paranormal phenomena offered for consideration. three out of four had actually experienced at least one of these phenomena with half experiencing more than three. These included mental telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis (a.k.a. telekinesis), mental healing, ghosts, channeling the dead, near death experiences, reincarnation and UFO’s. These numbers went up in 2001. How is something experienced by at least 150 million people extraordinary? A criteria that depends so much on a person’s viewpoint is, of course, scientifically useless. We’re back to square one. Either you provide evidence or you don’t.
The fact is, once you have attached the label “extraordinary” to something, you are really in the realm of belief, not rational thought. I have encountered many people who will pop pretty much any pill a doctor gives them, regardless of the possible side effects, yet herbal remedies and homeopathy, which do not carry these risks and in many cases are more effective are largely ignored. What we have is a belief in western medicine out of proportion to its usefulness to us. Many people also place a great deal of faith, (and I do not use that term lightly) in what is basically Newtonian physics even though this is outdated by over 200 years. We have faith in technology, capitalism and a whole list of other subjects whether they serve us or not. So what we find is that what we thought was backed up by facts and science was really just a belief system.
We learn a huge number of these assumptions (a.k.a. belief systems) from our families, from our schools and from our friends which can remain unquestioned throughout our entire lives. These assumptions on a wide range of subjects cause us to blank out or not consider evidence which contradicts our views. These unquestioned assumptions can range from the personal: (Everyone should have children) to societal: (capitalism is good.) and never be reconsidered.
Actual critical thinking requires a recognition that a belief system is in place and also the suspension of it. In actuality, few people are even aware that this problem exists. Fewer still have been trained in any way to do this at all. I did master this not because I set out to do it, but because of unusual circumstances as I was growing up. I was an exchange student in Mexico for six weeks and in Germany for a year all before I reached 20 years old. I not only lived with my parents, but also under families from different cultures. (i also had a parade of step parents, but that’s a different story.) Being exposed to a wide range of often competing beliefs from an early age allowed me to step back from my own beliefs and recognize a bigger picture.
The point I’m making is that what often passes for rational thought is more often than not a set of belief systems which are assumed to be facts. And this occurs for everyone whether their belief system involves being skeptical or a believer. We are never completely free of this; we can only reduce the effect of this on our lives. The reason has to do with a little known feature of our psychology. As our emotions rise, our thinking changes. If we are angry, depressed, sad, happy or even sexually charged our entire outlook on life changes with those emotions. As a result, when we bump into one of our beliefs, this will set off a subconscious fear which will basically cement the belief into place. We move from a place of openness to defense.
The line between rational thought and beliefs can be very thin. Look around and see how much craziness you can find in the world and even in people you know. Chances are, there is quite a bit. As much as we all want to believe we are always rational, it’s far less of a sure thing than we might think.