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Demographics of Belief

The following excerpt is from the Prologue to my new book, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts, Gods, and Aliens to Conspiracies, Economics, and Politics—How the Brain Constructs Beliefs and Reinforces Them as Truths. The Prologue is entitled “I Want to Believe.” The book synthesizes 30 years of research to answer the questions of how and why we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives, from our suspicions and superstitions to our politics, economics, and social beliefs. LEARN MORE about the book.

According to a 2009 Harris Poll of 2,303 adult Americans, when people are asked to “Please indicate for each one if you believe in it, or not,” the following results were revealing:1

  • 82% believe in God
  • 76% believe in miracles
  • 75% believe in Heaven
  • 73% believe in Jesus is God
    or the Son of God
  • 72% believe in angels
  • 71% believe in survival
    of the soul after death
  • 70% believe in the
    resurrection of Jesus Christ
  • 61% believe in hell
  • 61% believe in
    the virgin birth (of Jesus)
  • 60% believe in the devil
  • 45% believe in Darwin’s
    Theory of Evolution
  • 42% believe in ghosts
  • 40% believe in creationism
  • 32% believe in UFOs
  • 26% believe in astrology
  • 23% believe in witches
  • 20% believe in reincarnation

Wow. More people believe in angels and the devil than believe in the theory of evolution. That’s disturbing. And yet, such results should not surprise us as they match similar survey findings for belief in the paranormal conducted over the past several decades.2 And it is not just Americans. The percentages of Canadians and Britons who hold such beliefs are nearly identical to those of Americans.3 For example, a 2006 Readers Digest survey of 1,006 adult Britons reported that 43 percent said that they can read other people’s thoughts or have their thoughts read, more than half said that they have had a dream or premonition of an event that then occurred, more than two-thirds said they could feel when someone was looking at them, 26 percent said they had sensed when a loved-one was ill or in trouble, and 62 percent said that they could tell who was calling before they picked up the phone. In addition, a fifth said they had seen a ghost and nearly a third said they believe that Near-Death Experiences are evidence for an afterlife.4

Although the specific percentages of belief in the supernatural and the paranormal across countries and decades varies slightly, the numbers remain fairly consistent that the majority of people hold some form of paranormal or supernatural belief.5 Alarmed by such figures, and concerned about the dismal state of science education and its role in fostering belief in the paranormal, the National Science Foundation (NSF) conducted its own extensive survey of beliefs in both the paranormal and pseudoscience, concluding with a plausible culprit in the creation of such beliefs:

Belief in pseudoscience, including astrology, extrasensory perception (ESP), and alien abductions, is relatively widespread and growing. For example, in response to the 2001 NSF survey, a sizable minority (41 percent) of the public said that astrology was at least somewhat scientific, and a solid majority (60 percent) agreed with the statement “some people possess psychic powers or ESP.” Gallup polls show substantial gains in almost every category of pseudoscience during the past decade. Such beliefs may sometimes be fueled by the media’s miscommunication of science and the scientific process.6

I too would like to lay the blame at the feet of the media, or science education in general, because the fix then seems straightforward—just improve how we communicate and educate science. But that’s too easy. In any case, the NSF’s own data do not support it. Although belief in ESP decreased from 65% among high school graduates to 60% among college graduates, and belief in magnetic therapy dropped from 71% among high school graduates to 55% among college graduates, that still leaves over half of educated people fully endorsing such claims! And for embracing alternative medicine, the percentages actually increased, from 89% for high school grads to 92% for college grads.

Perhaps a deeper cause may be found in another statistic: 70% of Americans still do not understand the scientific process, defined in the NSF study as grasping probability, the experimental method, and hypothesis testing. So one solution here is teaching how science works in addition to the rote memorization of scientific facts. A 2002 article in Skeptic magazine entitled “Science Education is No Guarantee of Skepticism,” presented the results of a study that found no correlation between science knowledge (facts about the world) and paranormal beliefs. The authors, W. Richard Walker, Steven J. Hoekstra, and Rodney J. Vogl, concluded: “Students that scored well on these [science knowledge] tests were no more or less skeptical of pseudoscientific claims than students that scored very poorly. Apparently, the students were not able to apply their scientific knowledge to evaluate these pseudoscientific claims. We suggest that this inability stems in part from the way that science is traditionally presented to students: Students are taught what to think but not how to think.”7 The scientific method is a teachable concept, as evidenced in the NSF study that found that 53% of Americans with a high level of science education (nine or more high school and college science/math courses) understand the scientific process, compared to 38% with a middle level (six to eight such courses) of science education, and 17% with a low level (less than five such courses) of science education. So maybe the key to attenuating superstition and belief in the supernatural is in teaching how science works, not just what science has discovered. I have believed this myself for my entire career in science and education. If I didn’t believe it I might not have gone into the business of teaching, writing, and editing science in the first place.

Alas, I have come to the conclusion that belief is largely immune to attack by direct educational tools, at least for those who are not ready to hear it. Belief change comes from a combination of personal psychological readiness and a deeper social and cultural shift in the underlying zeitgeist of the times, which is affected in part by education, but is more the product of larger and harder-to-define political, economic, religious, and social changes.

DOWNLOAD my reading of the prologue (48MB MP3)
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References

  1. www.harrisinteractive.com/vault/Harris_Poll_2009_12_15.pdf
  2. www.gallup.com/poll/16915/Three-Four-Americans-Believe-Paranormal.aspx

    Similar percentages of belief were found in this 2005 Gallup Poll:

    Psychic or Spiritual Healing 55%
    Demon possession 42%
    ESP 41%
    Haunted Houses 37%
    Telepathy 31%
    Clairvoyance (know past/predict future) 26%
    Astrology 25%
    Psychics are able to talk to the dead 21%
    Reincarnation 20%
    Channeling spirits from the other side 9%
  3. www.gallup.com/poll/19558/Paranormal-Beliefs-Come-SuperNaturally-Some.aspx
  4. news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/5017910.stm
  5. Gallup News Service. 2001. “Americans’ Belief in Psychic Paranormal Phenomena is up Over Last Decade.” June 8.
  6. National Science Foundation. 2002. Science Indicators Biennial Report. The section on pseudoscience, “Science Fiction and Pseudoscience,” is in Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Understanding and Public Attitudes. Go to: www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/seind02/c7/c7h.htm.
  7. Walker, W. Richard, Steven J. Hoekstra, and Rodney J. Vogl. 2002. “Science Education is No Guarantee of Skepticism.” Skeptic, Vol. 9, No. 3, 24–25.
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Jesse “The Body” Ventura versus Michael “The Mind” Shermer

Jesse Ventura

Jesse Ventura (photo by Cory Barnes, used under CC BY-SA 2.0)

On Monday afternoon, April 11, I appeared on Southern California Public Radio KPCC’s Patt Morrison show to briefly debate (dare I saw wrestle?) the former Navy Seal, Minnesota Governor, professional wrestler, television host, and author Jesse “The Body” Ventura, who was on a book tour swing through Los Angeles promoting his latest conspiracy fictions he believes are facts entitled The 63 Documents the Government Doesn’t Want You To Read. (The figure of 63 was chosen, Jesse says, because that was the year JFK was assassinated.) Presented in breathtaking revelatory tones that within lies the equivalent of the Pentagon Papers, what the reader actually finds between the covers are documents obtained through standard Freedom of Information Act requests that can also be easily downloaded from the Internet.

No matter, with bigger-than-life Jesse Ventura at the conspiratorial helm everything is larger than it seems, especially when his unmistakable booming voice pronounces them as truths. I had only a few hours to read the book, but that turned out to be more than adequate since most of the documents are familiar to us conspiracy watchers and what little added commentary is provided to introduce them appears to be mostly written by Ventura’s co-author Dick Russell, the pen behind the mouth for many of Jesse’s books. (Since he is no longer wrestling perhaps he should change his moniker to Jesse “The Mouth” Ventura.)

Surprisingly, given his background in the military and government, Ventura seems surprised to learn that governments lie to their citizens. Shockingly true, yes, but just because politicians and their appointed cabinet assigns and their staffers sometimes lie (mostly in the interest of national security but occasionally to cover up their own incompetence and moral misdeeds), doesn’t mean that every pronouncement made in the name of a government action is a lie. After all, as in the old logical chestnut—“This statement is untrue” (if it’s true it’s untrue and vice versa)—if everything is a lie then nothing is a lie. Likewise, I noted up front on the show, if everything is a conspiracy then nothing is a conspiracy.

Given the helter skelter nature of talk radio and Jesse’s propensity to interrupt through his booming voice any dissenters from his POV, I tried to make just four points. Let’s call them Conspiracy Skeptical Principles.

Conspiracy Skeptical Principle #1: There must be some means of discriminating between true and false conspiracy theories. Lincoln was assassinated by a conspiracy; JFK was not. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a conspiracy of Serbian operatives that triggered the outbreak of the First World War; Princess Diana was not murdered by the Royal Family or any other secretive organization, but instead died by the most common form of death on a highway: speeding, drunk driving, and no seat belt.

Conspiracy Skeptical Principle #2: Cognitive Dissonance and the need to balance the size of the event with the size of the cause. Jesse Ventura said: “Do you mean to tell me that 19 guys with box cutters taking orders from a guy in a cave in Afghanistan brought down the most powerful nation on earth?” First of all, America is alive and well, thank you, even though Ventura has since moved to Mexico. But, yes, as a matter of fact, that is the only way such an event can happen: Sizable cohorts of operatives in prominent positions (Bush, Rumsfeld, Chaney, the CIA, the FBI, et al.) are too noticeable to get away with such a conspiracy. (By the way, 9/11 was a conspiracy: 19 members of Al Qaeda plotting to fly planes into buildings without telling us ahead of time constitutes a conspiracy.) It is the lone nuts living in the nooks and crannies of a free society (think Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinkley, etc.) who become invisible by blending into the background scenery.

Conspiracy Skeptical Principle #3: What else would have to be true if your conspiracy theory is true? Jesse proclaimed on the show that the Pentagon was hit by a missile. His proof? He interviewed a woman on his conspiracy TV show who said she worked inside the Pentagon and never saw a plane hit it. Well, first of all, earlier in the show when I brought up Jesse’s conspiracy television series he discounted it, saying “that’s pure entertainment.” But now he wants to use an interview from that same show not as entertainment but as proof. As well, hardly anyone working in the Pentagon that day saw anything happen because they were inside the five-sided building and the plane only hit on one side, and even there, presumably (hopefully), people are actually working and not just sitting there staring out the window all day. But to the skeptical principle: As I said on the show, “If a missile hit the Pentagon, Jesse, that means that a plane did not hit it. What happened to the American Airlines plane?” Jesse’s answer: “I don’t know.” Sorry Jesse, not good enough. It’s not enough to poke holes at the government explanation for 9/11 (a form of negative evidence); you must also present positive evidence for your theory. In this case, tell us what happened to the plane that didn’t hit the Pentagon because there are a lot of grieving families who would like to know what happened to their loved ones (as would several radar operators who tracked the plane from hijacking to suddenly disappearing off the screen in the same place as the Pentagon is located). Finally, I directed Jesse and our listeners to www.skeptic.com to view the photograph of the American Airlines plane debris on the lawn in front of the Pentagon, below. Are we to believe that the U.S. government timed the impact of a missile on the Pentagon with the hijackers who flew the plane into the Pentagon?

Flight 77 wreckage at Pentagon

010911-N-6157F-001 Arlington, Va. (Sep. 11, 2001) — Wreckage from the hijacked American Airlines FLT 77 sits on the west lawn of the Pentagon minutes after terrorists crashed the aircraft into the southwest corner of the building. The Boeing 757 was bound for Los Angeles with 58 passengers and 6 crew. All aboard the aircraft were killed, along with 125 people in the Pentagon. (Photo by U.S. Navy Photo by Journalist 1st Class Mark D. Faram) (RELEASED)

Conspiracy Skeptical Principle #4: Your conspiracy theory must be more consistent than the accepted explanation. Jesse says that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda did not orchestrate 9/11, and instead it was done by the Bush administration (or, he says, at least by Chaney and his covert operatives). As evidence, Jesse wants to know why Osama bin Laden has not been indicted for murder by the United States government. As well, he says, why was no one fired for not acting on the famous memos of the summer of 2001 that warned our government that Al Qaeda was financing operatives in America in flight training schools and that Osama bin Laden would strike on U.S. soil. Hold on there Jesse—first you say that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda are innocent of this crime, and then you present evidence in the form of documents that the U.S. government was forewarned that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda would attack us? Sorry sir, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t hold to two contradictory conspiracy theories at the same time and use evidence from each to support the other. (Well, you can, but that would be a splendid example of logic-tight compartments in your head keeping separate contradictory ideas.)

Finally, in frustration I presume, Jesse accused me of being a mouthpiece of the government, just parroting whatever my overlords command me to say to keep the truth hidden. That conspiracy theory happens to be true, except for the part about the mouthpiece, the government, the parrot, and the truth.

Material from Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth
wombat reading Skeptic magazine

P.S. During my recent lecture tour swing through Wisconsin I was confronted at a restaurant by three 9/11 Truthers who were unable to attend my talk that night or even join the local skeptics group meeting that afternoon with me, and instead handed me a pile of literature and a DVD to watch touting the merits of the group known as Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, who appear to hold fast to the belief that the WTC buildings were intentionally demolished by explosive devices AND that the hijackers (whoever they really were) somehow managed to fly the planes into the WTC buildings at precisely where the demolition experts planted the explosive devices—at the exact correct floors, at the exact angle at which the wings were tilted, because that is where the collapse of both buildings began. Check it out yourself below, along with our issue of Skeptic on 9/11 conspiracy theories, which was being read in Wisconsin by the little Wombat given to me by my hosts at the University of Wisconsin.

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UFOs, UAPs and CRAPs

Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) offer a lesson on the residue problem in science
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ONE MORNING SEVERAL YEARS AGO a black triangular-shaped object flew over my home in the San Gabriel Mountains in southern California. It was almost completely silent, made rapid turns and accelerations, and was so nonreflective it looked like a hole in the sky, almost otherworldly. It was, in fact, the B-2 Stealth Bomber, looping around to make another run over the Pasadena Rose Parade on January 1, an annual tradition. But had I not known what it was and seen it first, say, out in the desert at dusk, I might easily have thought it a UFO.

For decades black triangularshaped objects have been labeled UFOs. Now a cohort of military, aviation and political observers would like to change the label to a less pejorative phrasing—Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)— and their efforts to be taken seriously have resulted in a new book by investigative journalist Leslie Kean entitled UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officals Go on the Record (Crown, 2010). Kean asks readers to consider that such sightings represent “a solid, physical phenomenon that appears to be under intelligent control and is capable of speeds, maneuverability, and luminosity beyond current known technology,” that the “government routinely ignores UFOs and, when pressed, issues false explanations,” and that the “hypothesis that UFOs are of extraterrestrial or interdimensional origin is a rational one and must be taken into account.” (continue reading…)

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Agenticity

Why people believe that invisible agents
control the world
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Souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspirators, and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention are believed to haunt our world and control our lives. Why?

The answer has two parts, starting with the concept of “patternicity,” which I defined in my December 2008 column as the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Consider the face on Mars, the Virgin Mary on a grilled-cheese sandwich, satanic messages in rock music. Of course, some patterns are real. Finding predictive patterns in changing weather, fruiting trees, migrating prey animals and hungry predators was central to the survival of Paleolithic hominids. (continue reading…)

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Fox’s Flapdoodle

Tabloid television offers a lesson in uncritical thinking
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The price of liberty is, in addition to eternal vigilance, eternal patience with the vacuous blather occasionally expressed from behind the shield of free speech. It is a cost worth bearing, but it does become exasperating, as when the Fox Broadcasting Company aired its highly advertised special “Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?” NASA, viewers were told, faked the Apollo missions on a movie set.

Such flummery should not warrant a response, but in a free society, skeptics are the watchdogs against irrationalism — the consumer advocates of ideas. Debunking is not simply the divestment of bunk; its utility is in offering a better alternative, along with a lesson on how thinking goes wrong. The Fox show is a case study, starting with its disclaimer: “The following program deals with a controversial subject. The theories expressed are not the only possible explanation. Viewers are invited to make a judgment based on all available information.” That information, of course, was not provided, so let’s refute Fox’s argument point by point in case the statistic at the top of the show — that 20 percent of Americans believe we never went to the moon — is accurate. (continue reading…)

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