How easy is it to believe in nonsense, without being notably stupid?
Some years ago – I’d guess I was very approximately 13, so in the mid-to-late ’90s, but certainly long before I had any idea what scientific skepticism was, and even longer before I’d given up believing in God – I was watching some debate show on TV about the paranormal. There was a host/moderator at a desk, with a couple of people on either side of him, each arguing one side of the debate. And there was a fairly large studio audience.
The first person to speak was an alleged psychic, who was over from the US (this was an English show, I’m pretty sure) and had agreed to demonstrate his abilities. He started by doing some readings for people in the crowd, throwing out some fairly specific things straight off, and homing in on some individual people, seeming to know a good deal about each of them. I can’t remember what he said, or whether he claimed to be in direct contact with anybody’s dead relatives, but the audience members he spoke to were definitely very impressed, as were many of the onlookers.
Now, as I recall, I didn’t really have any opinion at the time on things like psychic powers. The subject was interesting enough to me that I was watching a debate that proposed to settle the matter, but I certainly don’t think I was convinced that there was anything to it, though nor was I especially against the idea. I just don’t think I’d given it much thought.
In fact, I’m sure I must have been open to it and yet unconvinced – because I distinctly remember being very impressed myself by the quality of the readings this guy was giving. I mean, we were assured that he hadn’t met any of these people before, there didn’t seem to be any obvious way he could be finding these things out about them, no way he’d have known who was going to be in the audience tonight so that he could research them beforehand. He was just standing up and somehow providing all this secret information, with startling accuracy.
So I figured maybe there was something to this psychic stuff after all. Maybe the guy was in touch with some sort of magic, or something. It seemed to make sense.
Of course, it didn’t last. It didn’t last more than about thirty seconds, in fact, because as soon as he was done making a very impressive case for the existence of psychic powers, and wowing the crowd, the host told us that this was not in fact Mr So-and-so, the practising psychic as whom he’d been introduced. It was in fact Mr James Randi, experienced skeptical investigator of paranormal claims. I remember a mild uproar from the crowd at this point, which if I had to pin it down to an emotion being expressed I would probably call dismay.
And suddenly my own view of things swung way back in the opposite direction. I hadn’t known it was possible for a psychic to come up with such amazing information – and, I now realised, I hadn’t known it was also possible for some regular guy who knows his shit to put on an equally impressive performance.
And it was really, really cool. It didn’t shake any particular worldviews of mine, and my role as an interested skeptic still didn’t really start for a number of years, but I really liked this. It sounded like some people in the audience objected to being tricked, but I thought it was great. Maybe it says something about the approach to learning that I’d come to adopt in the first few years of my life, or maybe I just hadn’t had time to grow attached to this particular paradigm before it was shattered. But I thought the way I’d been led down one path and then had the rug pulled from under me (if you’ll forgive another mixed metaphor involving carpeted pathways) was really cool.
And it made Randi’s point very well, of course. The fact that I could be tricked like that was quite revealing, and made the case very convincingly that the skeptics were right – or at least that the psychics were going to have to step up their game a great deal if they wanted to be taken seriously. But I didn’t feel upset that I’d been tricked, or like I’d been made to look stupid. And while there may be a lot that I know now, and which seems obvious to me now, which I wasn’t aware of at the time, I don’t think you have to start from a position of total idiocy to make a transition like that.
It’s not for my own ego that I keep reiterating that I wasn’t being stupid, by the way. I know it might seem like I’m just trying to disingenuously maintain my own integrity while continuing to mock anyone of a different opinion to me at present. (“Other people are stupid to believe this stuff. I was just having a momentary but understandable and perfectly human blip in my usually excellent rational and intelligent outlook.”) But I think there’s something important to remember here, and this story is one of my strongest personal reminders.
The most vocal, prominent, or infuriating proponents of woo out there are often infuriatingly stubborn, or committed to irrationality, or strongly mentally blocked to any disconfirming evidence, or otherwise not worth arguing with. But they’re by no means the majority. They’re not the one in three people who believe in telepathy or ghosts. Those people are me a little over a decade ago. They haven’t spent years reading skeptical blogs and listening to science podcasts, learning how to think critically about these things, and about the history and context of all these wacky beliefs, and how people can be fooled into getting things wrong. But they’re not fundamentalists or ideologues. They’ve probably just seen someone on stage, claiming to be a psychic, saying some pretty impressive things.
And if that someone turns out to be James Randi using cold reading (or hot reading, I forget exactly how it went on that particular show), they might find that as cool as I did.
Maybe this is how we should be approaching the skeptical battle, then. Don’t worry about the extremists; there’s no significant hope for some people to ever see any kind of light. But keep talking to the people who are just like you before you knew any of this stuff. Put the emphasis on how much fun it can be to learn you were wrong, to see how you were just fooled by something nifty. Keep some sarcasm in your arsenal, because it’s funny and the sort of thing that can be useful in rallying the troops, but don’t let it become your primary weapon against people who might be willing to learn a thing or two. Always keep it rational. Make sure we’re always the ones explaining why the facts are on our side.
I hope you’re listening to this, writerJames. Seriously, I sometimes think that guy could use this advice more than most.