Why People Believe Weird Things: Excerpt
Preface to the Second Edition:
Why Smart People Believe Weird Things
Through my work as the Editor-in-Chief of Skeptic magazine, the Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, and as the Skeptic columnist for Scientific American,the analysis and explanation of what we loosely refer to as “weird things” is a daily routine. Unfortunately, there is no formal definition of a weird thing that most people can agree upon, because it depends so much on the particular claim being made in the context of the knowledge base that surrounds it and the individual or community proclaiming it. One person’s weird belief might be another’s normal theory, and a weird belief at one time might subsequently become normal. Stones falling from the sky were once the belief of a few daffy Englishmen; today we have an accepted theory of meteorites. In the jargon of science philosopher Thomas Kuhn, revolutionary ideas that are initially anathema to the accepted paradigm, in time may become normal science as the field undergoes a paradigm shift.12
Still, we can formulate a general outline of what might constitute a weird thing as we consider specific examples. For the most part, what I mean by a “weird thing” is:
- a claim unaccepted by most people in that particular field of study,
- a claim that is either logically impossible or highly unlikely, and/or
- a claim for which the evidence is largely anecdotal and uncorroborated.
In my introductory example, most theologians recognize that God’s existence cannot be proven in any scientific sense, and thus Dembski’s and Tipler’s goal of using science to prove God is not only unacceptable to most members of his knowledge community, it is uncorroborated because it is logically impossible. Cold fusion, to pick another example, is unaccepted by almost all physicists and chemists, is highly unlikely, and positive results have not been corroborated. Yet there are a handful of smart people (Arthur C. Clarke is the most notable) who hold out hope for cold fusion’s future.
“Smart people” suffers from a similar problem in operational definition, but at least here our task is aided by achievement criteria that most would agree, and the research shows, requires a minimum level of intelligence. Graduate degrees (especially the Ph.D.), university positions (especially at recognized and reputable institutions), peer-reviewed publications, and the like, allow us to concur that, while we might quibble over how smart some of these people are, the problem of smart people believing weird things is a genuine one that is quantifiable through measurable data. Additionally, there is a subjective evaluation that comes from the experiences I have had in dealing directly with so many people whose claims I have evaluated. While I have not had the opportunity to administer intelligence tests to my various subjects, through numerous television and radio appearances and personal interviews I have conducted with such claimants, and especially through the lecture series that I organize and host at the California Institute of Technology, I have had the good fortune to meet a lot of really smart people, some out and out brilliant scholars and scientists, and even a handful of geniuses so far off the scale that they strike me as wholly Other. All of these factors combined affords me a reasonable assessment of my subjects’ intelligence.
An Easy Answer to a Hard Question
“The gentleman has eaten no small quantity of flapdoodle in his lifetime.”
“What’s that, O’Brien?” replied I …
“Why, Peter,” rejoined he, “it’s the stuff they feed fools on.”
It is a given assumption in the skeptical movement — elevated to a maxim really — that intelligence and education serve as an impenetrable prophylactic against the flim flam that we assume the unintelligent and uneducated masses swallow with credulity. Indeed, at the Skeptics Society we invest considerable resources in educational materials distributed to schools and the media under the assumption that this will make a difference in our struggle against pseudoscience and superstition. These efforts do make a difference, particularly for those who are aware of the phenomena we study but have not heard a scientific explanation for them, but are the cognitive elite protected against the nonsense that passes for sense in our culture? Is flapdoodle the fodder for only fools? The answer is no. The question is why?
For those of us in the business of debunking bunk and explaining the unexplained, this is what I call the Hard Question: why do smart people believe weird things? My Easy Answer will seem somewhat paradoxical at first: Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.
That is to say, most of us most of the time come to our beliefs for a variety of reasons having little to do with empirical evidence and logical reasoning (that, presumably, smart people are better at employing). Rather, such variables as genetic predispositions, parental predilections, sibling influences, peer pressures, educational experiences, and life impressions all shape the personality preferences and emotional inclinations that, in conjunction with numerous social and cultural influences, lead us to make certain belief choices. Rarely do any of us sit down before a table of facts, weigh them pro and con, and choose the most logical and rational belief, regardless of what we previously believed. Instead, the facts of the world come to us through the colored filters of the theories, hypotheses, hunches, biases, and prejudices we have accumulated through our lifetime. We then sort through the body of data and select those most confirming what we already believe, and ignore or rationalize away those that are disconfirming.
All of us do this, of course, but smart people are better at it through both talent and training. Some beliefs really are more logical, rational, and supported by the evidence than others, of course, but it is not my purpose here to judge the validity of beliefs; rather, I am interested in the question of how we came to them in the first place, and how we hold on to them in the face of either no evidence or contradictory evidence.
The Psychology of Belief
There are a number of principles of the psychology of belief that go to the heart of fleshing out my Easy Answer to the Hard Question.
1. Intelligence and Belief
Although there is some evidence that intelligent people are slightly less likely to believe in some superstitions and paranormal beliefs, overall conclusions are equivocal and limited. A study conducted in 1974 with Georgia high-school seniors, for example, found that those who scored higher on an I.Q. test were significantly less superstitious than students with lower I.Q. scores.13 A 1980 study by psychologists James Alcock and L. P. Otis found that belief in various paranormal phenomena was correlated with lower critical thinking skills.14 In 1989, W. S. Messer and R. A. Griggs found that belief in such psi phenomena as out-of-body experiences, ESP, and precognition was negatively correlated with classroom performance as measured by grades (as belief goes up, grades go down).15
But it should be noted that these three studies are using three different measures: I.Q., critical thinking skills, and educational performance. These may not always be indicative of someone being “smart.” And what we mean by “weird things” here is not strictly limited to superstition and the paranormal. For example, cold fusion, creationism, and Holocaust revisionism could not reasonably be classified as superstitions or paranormal phenomena. In his review of the literature in one of the best books on this subject (Believing in Magic), psychologist Stuart Vyse concludes that while the relationship between intelligence and belief holds for some populations, it can be just the opposite in others. He notes that the New Age movement in particular “has led to the increased popularity of these ideas among groups previously thought to be immune to superstition: those with higher intelligence, higher socioeconomic status, and higher educational levels. As a result, the time-honored view of believers as less intelligent than nonbelievers may only hold for certain ideas or particular social groups.”16
For the most part intelligence is orthogonal to and independent of belief. In geometry, orthogonal means “at right angles to something else”; in psychology orthogonal means “statistically independent. Of an experimental design: such that the variates under investigation can be treated as statistically independent,” for example, “the concept that creativity and intelligence are relatively orthogonal (i.e., unrelated statistically) at high levels of intelligence.”17 Intuitively it seems like the more intelligent people are the more creative they will be. In fact, in almost any profession significantly affected by intelligence (e.g., science, medicine, the creative arts), once you are at a certain level among the population of practitioners (and that level appears to be an I.Q. score of about 125), there is no difference in intelligence between the most successful and the average in that profession. At that point other variables, independent of intelligence, take over, such as creativity, or achievement motivation and the drive to succeed.18
Cognitive psychologist Dean Keith Simonton’s research on genius, creativity, and leadership, for example, has revealed that the raw intelligence of creative geniuses and leaders is not as important as their ability to generate a lot of ideas and select from them those that are most likely to succeed. Simonton argues that creative genius is best understood as a Darwinian process of variation and selection. Creative geniuses generate a massive variety of ideas from which they select only those most likely to survive and reproduce. As the two-time Nobel laureate and scientific genius Linus Pauling observed, one must “have lots of ideas and throw away the bad ones … You aren’t going to have good ideas unless you have lots of ideas and and some sort of principle of selection.” Like Forest Gump, genius is as genius does, says Simonton: “these are individuals credited with creative ideas or products that have left a large impression on a particular domain of intellectual or aesthetic activity. In other words, the creative genius attains eminence by leaving for posterity an impressive body of contributions that are both original and adaptive. In fact, empirical studies have repeatedly shown that the single most powerful predictor of eminence within any creative domain is the sheer number of influential products an individual has given the world.” In science, for example, the number one predictor of receiving the Nobel Prize is the rate of journal citation, a measure, in part, of one’s productivity. As well, Simonton notes, Shakespeare is a literary genius not just because he was good, but because “probably only the Bible is more likely to be found in English-speaking homes than is a volume containing the complete works of Shakespeare.” In music, Simonton notes that “Mozart is considered a greater musical genius than Tartini in part because the former accounts for 30 times as much music in the classical repertoire as does the latter. Indeed, almost a fifth of all classical music performed in modern times was written by just three composers: Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.”19 In other words, it is not so much that these creative geniuses were smart, but that they were productive and selective.
So intelligence is also orthogonal to the variables that go into shaping someone’s beliefs. Think of this relationship visually as follows:
Magic is a useful analogue for this relationship. Folk wisdom has it that smart people are harder for magicians to fool because they are cleverer at figuring out how the tricks are done. But ask any magician (I have asked lots) and they will tell you that there is no better audience than a room full of scientists, academics, or, best of all, members of the high I.Q. club Mensa. Members of such cohorts, by virtue of their intelligence and education, think they will be better at discerning the secrets of the magician, but since they aren’t they are easier to fool because in watching the tricks so intensely they more easily fall for the misdirection cues. The magician James “the Amazing” Randi, one of the smartest people I know, gleefully deceives Nobel laureates with the simplest of magic, knowing that intelligence is unrelated (or perhaps in this case slightly inversely correlated) to the ability to discern the real magic behind the tricks. Tellingly, over the years I have given a number of lectures to Mensa groups around the country and have been struck by the number of weird beliefs such exceptionally smart people hold, including and especially ESP. At one conference there was much discussion about whether Mensa members also had higher Psi.Q.s (Psychic Quotient) than regular people!
Another problem is that smart people might be smart in only one field. We say that their intelligence is domain specific. In the field of intelligence studies there is a long-standing debate about whether the brain is “domain general” or “domain specific.” Evolutionary psychologists John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, and Steve Pinker, for example, reject the idea of a domain-general processor, focusing on brain modules that evolved to solve specific problems in our evolutionary history. On the other hand, many psychologists accept the notion of a global intelligence that could be considered domain general.20 Archaeologist Steven Mithen goes so far as to say that it was a domain-general processor that made us human: “The critical step in the evolution of the modern mind was the switch from a mind designed like a Swiss army knife to one with cognitive fluidity, from a specialized to a generalized type of mentality. This enabled people to design complex tools, to create art and believe in religious ideologies. Moreover, the potential for other types of thought which are critical to the modern world can be laid at the door of cognitive fluidity.”21 It seems reasonable to argue that the brain consists of both domain specific and domain general modules. David Noelle, of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition at the Carnegie Mellon University, informs me that “modern neuroscience has made it clear that the adult brain does contain functionally distinct circuits. As our understanding of the brain advances, however, we find that these circuits rarely map directly onto complex domains of human experience, such as ‘religion’ or ‘belief.’ Instead, we find circuits for more basic things, such as recognizing our location in space, predicting when something good is going to happen (e.g., when we will be rewarded), remembering events from our own lives, and keeping focused on our current goal. Complex aspects of behavior, like religious practices, arise from the interaction of these systems — not from any one module.22
What happens when smart people may be smart in one field (domain specificity) but are not smart in an entirely different field, out of which may arise weird beliefs. When Harvard marine biologist Barry Fell jumped fields into archaeology and wrote a best-selling book about all the people who discovered American before Columbus (America B.C.), he was woefully unprepared and obviously unaware that archaeologists had already considered his different hypotheses of who first discovered America (Egyptians, Greeks, Roman, Phoenicians, etc.) but rejected them for lack of credible evidence. This is a splendid example of the social aspects of science, and why being smart in one field does not make one smart in another. Science is a social process, where one is trained in a certain paradigm and works with others in the field. A community of scientists read the same journals, go to the same conferences, review each others papers and books, and generally exchange ideas about the facts, hypotheses, and theories in that field. Through vast experience they know, fairly quickly, which new ideas stand a chance of succeeding and which are obviously wrong. Newcomers from other fields, who typically dive in with both feet without the requisite training and experience, and proceed to generate new ideas that they think — because of their success in their own field — will be revolutionary. Instead, they are usually greeted with disdain (or, more typically, simply ignored) by the professionals in the field. This is not because (as they usually think is the reason) insiders don’t like outsiders (or that all great revolutionaries are persecuted or ignored), but because in most cases those ideas were considered years or decades before and rejected for perfectly legitimate reasons.
2. Gender and Belief
In many ways the orthogonal relationship of intelligence and beliefs is not unlike that of gender and beliefs. With the surge of popularity of psychic mediums like John Edward, James Van Praagh, and Sylvia Browne, it has become obvious to observers, particularly among journalists assigned to cover them, that at any given group gathering (usually at large hotel conference rooms holding several hundred people, each of whom paid several hundred dollars to be there), that the vast majority (at least seventy-five percent) are women. Understandably, journalists inquire whether women, therefore, are more superstitious or less rational than men, who typically disdain such mediums and scoff at the notion of talking to the dead. Indeed, a number of studies have found that women hold more superstitious beliefs and accept more paranormal phenomena as real than men. In one study of 132 men and women in New York City, for example, scientists found that more women than men believed that knocking on wood or walking under a ladder brought bad luck.23 Another study showed that more college women than men professed belief in precognition.24
Although the general conclusion from such studies seems compelling, it is wrong. The problem here is with limited sampling. If you attend any meeting of creationists, Holocaust “revisionists,” or UFOlogists, for instance, you will find almost no women at all (the few that I see at such conferences are the spouses of attending members and, for the most part, they look bored out of their skulls). For a variety of reasons related to the subject matter and style of reasoning, creationism, revisionism, and UFOlogy are guy beliefs. So, while gender is related to the target of one’s beliefs, it appears to be unrelated to the process of believing. In fact, in the same study that found more women than men believed in precognition, it turns out that more men than women believe in Big Foot and the Loch Ness monster.25 Seeing into the future is a woman’s thing, tracking down chimerical monsters is a man’s thing. There are no differences between men and women in the power of belief, only in what they choose to believe.
3. Age and Belief
The relationship between age and belief is also mixed. Some studies show that older people are more skeptical than younger people, such as a 1990 Gallup poll indicating that people under thirty were more superstitious than older age groups.26 Another study showed that younger police officers were more likely to believe in the full-moon effect (where allegedly crime rates are higher during full moons) than older police officers. Other studies are less clear about the relationship. British folklorist Gillian Bennett discovered that older retired English women were more likely to believe in premonition than younger women.27 Psychologist Seymour Epstein surveyed three different age groups (9–12, 18–22, 27–65) and discovered that the percentage of belief in each age division depended on the specific phenomena under question. For telepathy and precognition there were no age group differences. For good luck charms more older adults said they had one than did college students or children. The belief that wishing something to happen will make it so decreased steadily with age.28 Finally, Frank Sulloway and I found that religiosity and belief in God steadily decreased with age, until about age seventy-five, when it went back up.29
These mixed results are due to what is known as person-by-situation effects, where a simple linear causal relationship between two variables rarely exists. Instead, to the question “does X cause Y?” the answer is often “it depends.” Bennett, for example, concluded that the older women in her study had lost power, status, and especially loved ones for which belief in the supernatural helped them recover. Sulloway and I concluded in our study that age and religiosity varies according to one’s situation in relation to both early powerful influences and the later perceived impending end of life.
4. Education and Belief
Studies on the relationship between education and belief are, like intelligence, gender, and age, mixed. Psychologist Chris Brand, for example, discovered a powerful inverse correlation of -.50 between I.Q. and authoritarianism (as I.Q. increases authoritarianism decreases). Brand concluded that authoritarians are characterized not by an affection for authority, but by “some simple-minded way in which the world has been divided up for them.” In this case, authoritarianism was being expressed through prejudice by dividing the world up by race, gender, and age. Brand attributes the correlation to “crystallized intelligence,” a relatively flexible form of intelligence shaped by education and life experience. But Brand is quick to point out that only when this type of intelligence is modified by a liberal education does one see a sharp decrease in authoritarianism. In other words, it is not so much that smart people are less prejudice and authoritarian, but that educated people are less so.30
Psychologists S.H. and L.H. Blum found a negative correlation between education and superstition (as education increased superstitious beliefs decreased).31 Laura Otis and James Alcock showed that college professors are more skeptical than either college students or the general public (with the latter two groups showing no difference in belief), but that within college professors there was variation in the types of beliefs held, with English professors more likely to believe in ghosts, ESP, and fortunetelling.32 Another study found, not surprisingly, that natural and social scientists were more skeptical than their colleagues in the arts and humanities; most appropriately, in this context, psychologists were the most skeptical of all (perhaps because they best understand the psychology of belief and how easy it is to be fooled).33
Finally, Richard Walker, Steven Hoekstra, and Rodney Vogl discovered that there was no relationship between science education and belief in the paranormal among three groups of science students at three different colleges. That is, “having a strong scientific knowledge base is not enough to insulate a person against irrational beliefs. Students that scored well on these 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.”34
Whether teaching students how to think will attenuate belief in the paranormal remains to be seen. Supposedly this is what the critical thinking movement has been emphasizing for three decades now, yet polls show that paranormal beliefs continue to rise. A June 8, 2001 Gallup Poll, for example, reported a significant increase in belief in a number of paranormal phenomena since 1990, including haunted houses, ghosts, witches, communicating with the dead, psychic or spiritual healing, that extraterrestrial beings have visited earth, and clairvoyance. In support of my claim that the effects of gender, age, and education show content dependent effects, the Gallup poll found:
- Gender: Women are slightly more likely than men to believe in ghosts and that people can communicate with the dead. Men, on the other hand, are more likely than women to believe in only one of the dimensions tested: that extraterrestrials have visited earth at some point in the past.
- Age: Younger Americans — those 18–29 — are much more likely than those who are older to believe in haunted houses, in witches, in ghosts, that extraterrestrials have visited earth, and in clairvoyance. There is little significant difference in belief in the other items by age group. Those 30 and older are somewhat more likely to believe in possession by the devil than are the younger group.
- Education: Americans with the highest levels of education are more likely than others to believe in the power of the mind to heal the body. On the other hand, belief in three of the phenomena tested goes up as the educational level of the respondent goes down: possession by the devil, astrology and haunted houses. Additional results from the survey included:
|phenomenon||believe||not sure||don’t believe|
|Possession by the devil:||41%||16%||41%|
|Ghosts and spirits:||38%||17%||44%|
|Talking to the dead:||28%||26%||46%|
An even more striking poll result was reported by Gallup on March 5, 2001, about the surprising lack of belief in and understanding of the theory of evolution. Specifically, of those Americans polled:
- 45% agreed with the statement: “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”
- 37% agreed with the statement: “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process.”
- 12% agreed with the statement: “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process.”
Despite enormous funds and efforts allocated toward the teaching of evolution in public schools, and the proliferation of documentaries, books, and magazines presenting the theory on all levels, Americans have not noticeably changed their opinion on this question since Gallup started asking it in 1982. Gallup did find that individuals with more education and people with higher incomes are more likely to think that evidence supports the theory of evolution, and that younger people are also more likely than older people to think that evidence supports Darwin’s theory (again confounding the age variable). Nevertheless, only 34 percent of Americans consider themselves to be “very informed” about the theory of evolution, while a slightly greater percentage — 40 percent — consider themselves to be “very informed” about the theory of creation. Younger people, people with more education, and people with higher incomes are more likely to say they are very informed about both theories.36
5. Personality and Belief
Clearly human thought and behavior is complex and thus studies such as those reported above rarely show simple and consistent findings. Studies on the causes and effects of mystical experiences, for example, show mixed findings. The religious scholar Andrew Greeley, and others, have found a slight but significant tendency for mystical experiences to increase with age, education, and income, but there were no gender differences.37 J.S. Levin, by contrast, in analyzing the 1988 General Social Survey data, found no significant age trends in mystical experiences.38
But within any group, as defined by intelligence, gender, age, or education, are there any personality characteristics related to belief or disbelief in weird things? First, we note that personality is best characterized by traits, or relatively stable dispositions. The assumption is that these traits, in being “relatively stable,” are not provisional states, or conditions of the environment, the altering of which changes the personality. Today’s most popular trait theory is what is known as the Five Factor model, or the “Big Five”:
- Conscientiousness (competence, order, dutifulness),
- Agreeableness (trust, altruism, modesty),
- Openness to Experience (fantasy, feelings, values),
- Extroversion (gregariousness, assertiveness, excitement seeking), and
- Neuroticism (anxiety, anger, depression).
In the study on religiosity and belief in God conducted by Frank Sulloway and I, we found openness to experience to be the most significant predictor, with higher levels of openness related to lower levels of religiosity and belief in God.39 In studies of individual scientist’s personalities and their receptivity to fringe ideas like the paranormal, I found that a healthy balance between high conscientiousness and high openness to experience led to a moderate amount of skepticism. This was most clearly expressed in the careers of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and astronomer Carl Sagan.40 They were nearly off the scale in both conscientiousness and openness to experience, giving them that balance between being open-minded enough to accept the occasional extraordinary claim that turns out to be right, but not so open that one blindly accepts every crazy claim that anyone makes. Sagan, for example, was open to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence which, at the time, was considered a moderately heretical idea; but he was too conscientious to accept the even more controversial claim that UFOs and aliens have actually landed on earth.41
The psychologist David Wulff, in a general survey of the literature on the psychology of mystical experiences (a subset of weird things), concluded that there were some consistent personality differences:
Persons who tend to score high on mysticism scales tend also to score high on such variables as complexity, openness to new experience, breadth of interests, innovation, tolerance of ambiguity, and creative personality. Furthermore, they are likely to score high on measures of hypnotizability, absorption, and fantasy proneness, suggesting a capacity to suspend the judging process that distinguishes imaginings and real events and to commit their mental resources to representing the imaginal object as vividly as possible. Individuals high on hypnotic susceptibility are also more likely to report having undergone religious conversion, which for them is primarily an experiential rather than a cognitive phenomenon — that is, one marked by notable alterations in perceptual, affective, and ideomotor response patterns.43
6. Locus of Control and Belief
One of the most interesting areas of research on the psychology of belief is in the area of what psychologists call locus of control. People who measure high on external locus of control tend to believe that circumstances are beyond their control and that things just happen to them. People who measure high on internal locus of control tend to believe they are in control of their circumstances and that they make things happen.43 External locus of control leads to greater anxiety about the world, whereas internal locus of control leads one to be more confident in one’s judgment, skeptical of authority, and less compliant and conforming to external influences. In relation to beliefs, studies show that skeptics are high in internal locus of control whereas believers are high in external locus of control.44 A 1983 study by Jerome Tobacyk and Gary Milford of introductory psychology students at Louisiana Tech University, for example, found that those who scored high in external locus of control tended to believe in ESP, witchcraft, spiritualism, reincarnation, precognition, and were more superstitious than those students who scored high in internal locus of control.45
An interesting twist to this effect, however, was found by James McGarry and Benjamin Newberry in a 1977 study of strong believers in and practitioners of ESP and psychic power. Surprisingly, this group scored high in internal locus of control. The authors offered this explanation: “These beliefs [in ESP] may render such a person’s problems less difficult and more solvable, lessen the probability of unpredictable occurrences, and offer hope that political and governmental decisions can be influenced.”46 In other words, a deep commitment to belief in ESP, which usually entails believing that one has it, changes the focus from external to internal locus of control.
The effect of locus of control on belief is also mitigated by the environment, where there is a relationship between the uncertainty of an environment and the level of superstitious belief (as uncertainty goes up so too does superstitions). The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, for example, discovered that among the Trobriand Islanders (off the coast of New Guinea), the further out to sea they went to fish the more they developed superstitious rituals. In the calm waters of the inner lagoon, there were very few rituals. By the time they reached the dangerous waters of deep sea fishing, the Trobrianders were also deep into magic. Malinowski concluded that magical thinking derived from environmental conditions, not inherent stupidities: “We find magic wherever the elements of chance and accident, and the emotional play between hope and fear have a wide and extensive range. We do not find magic wherever the pursuit is certain, reliable, and well under the control of rational methods and technological processes. Further, we find magic where the element of danger is conspicuous.”47 Think of the superstitions of baseball players. Hitting a baseball is exceedingly difficult, with the best succeeding barely more than three out of every ten times at bat. And hitters are known for their extensive reliance on rituals and superstitions that they believe will bring them good luck. These same superstitious players, however, drop the superstitions when they take the field, since most of them succeed in fielding the ball over 90 percent of the time. Thus, as with the other variables that go into shaping belief that are themselves orthogonal to intelligence, the context of the person and the belief system are important.
7. Influence and Belief
Scholars who study cults (or, as many prefer to call them by the less pejorative term, “New Religious Movements”) explain that there is no simple answer to the question “who joins cults?” The only consistent variable seems to be age — young people are more likely to join cults than older people — but beyond that variables such as family background, intelligence, and gender are orthogonal to belief in and commitment to cults. Research shows that two-thirds of cult members come from normal functioning families and showed no psychological abnormalities whatsoever when they joined the cult.48 Smart people and non-smart people both readily join cults, and while women are more likely to join such groups as J.Z. Knight’s “Ramtha”-based cult (she allegedly channels a 35,000-year old guru named “Ramtha” who doles out life wisdom and advice, in English with an Indian accent no less!), men are more likely to join militias and other anti-government groups.
Again, although intelligence may be related to how well one is able to justify one’s membership in a group, and while gender may be related to which group is chosen for membership, intelligence and gender are unrelated to the general process of joining, the desire for membership in a cult, and belief in the cult’s tenets. Psychiatrist Marc Galanter, in fact, suggests that joining such groups is an integral part of the human condition to which we are all subject due to our common evolutionary heritage.49 Banning together in closely-knit groups was a common practice in our evolutionary history, because it reduced risk and increased survival by being with others of our perceived kind. But if the process of joining is common among most humans, why do some people join while others do not?
The answer is in the persuasive power of the principles of influence and the choice of what type of group to join. Cult experts and activists Steve Hassan and Margaret Singer outline a number of psychological influences that shape people’s thoughts and behaviors that lead them to join more dangerous groups (and that are quite independent of intelligence): cognitive dissonance, obedience to authority, group compliance and conformity, and especially the manipulation of rewards, punishments, and experiences with the purpose of controlling behavior, information, thought, and emotion (what Hassan calls the “BITE model”).50 Social psychologist Robert Cialdini demonstrates in his enormously persuasive book on influence, that all of us are influenced by a host of social and psychological variables, including physical attractiveness, similarity, repeated contact or exposure, familiarity, diffusion of responsibility, reciprocity, and many others.51
Smart Biases in Defending Weird Beliefs
In 1620 English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon offered his own Easy Answer to the Hard Question:
The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate … And such is the way of all superstitions, whether in astrology, dreams, omens, divine judgments, or the like; wherein men, having a delight in such vanities, mark the events where they are fulfilled, but where they fail, although this happened much oftener, neglect and pass them by.52
Why do smart people believe weird things? Because, to restate my thesis in light of Bacon’s insight, smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.
As we have already seen, there is a wealth of scientific evidence in support of this thesis, but none more so than two extremely powerful cognitive biases that make it difficult for any of us to objectively evaluate a claim. These biases, in fact, are especially well manipulated by smart people: the Intellectual Attribution Bias and the Confirmation Bias.
Intellectual Attribution Bias
When Sulloway and I asked our subjects why they believe in God, and why they think other people believe in God (and allowed them to provide written answers), we were inundated with thoughtful and lengthy treatises (many stapled multi-page, type-written answers to their survey) and we discovered that they could be a valuable source of data. Classifying the answers into categories, here was the top reasons given:
- Why People Believe in God
- Arguments based on good design/natural beauty/perfection/complexity of the world or universe. (28.6%)
- The experience of God in everyday life/a feeling that God is in us. (20.6%)\
- Belief in God is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life. (10.3%)
- The Bible says so. (9.8%)
- Just because/faith/or the need to believe in something. (8.2%)
- Why People Think Other People Believe in God
- Belief in God is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life. (26.3%)
- Religious people have been raised to believe in God. (22.4%)
- The experience of God in everyday life/a feeling that God is in us. (16.2%)
- Just because/faith/or the need to believe in something. (13.0%)
- People believe because they fear death and the unknown. (9.1%)
- Arguments based on good design/natural beauty/perfection/complexity of the world or universe. (6.0%)
Note that the intellectually-based reasons for belief in God of “Good design” and “Experience of God,” which were in 1st and 2nd place in the first question of why do you believe in God?, dropped to 6th and 3rd place for the second question of why do you think other people believe in God? Taking their place as the two most common reasons given for why other people believe in God were the emotionally based categories of religion being judged as “comforting” and people having been “raised to believe” in God. Grouping the answers into two general categories of rational reasons and emotional reasons for belief in God, we performed a Chi-Square test and found the difference to be significant (Chi-Square=328.63 [r=.49], N=1,356, p<.0001). With an odds ratio of 8.8 to 1, we may conclude that people are nearly nine times more likely to attribute their own belief in God to rational reasons than they are other people’s belief in God, which they will attribute to emotional reasons.53
One explanation for this finding is the attribution bias, or the attribution of causes of our own and others’ behaviors to either a situation or a disposition. When we make a situational attribution, we identify the cause in the environment (“my depression is caused by a death in the family”); when we make a dispositional attribution, we identify the cause in the person as an enduring trait (“her depression is caused by a melancholy personality”). Problems in attribution may arise in our haste to accept the first cause that comes to mind.54 Plus, social psychologists Carol Tavris and Carole Wade explain that there is a tendency for people “to take credit for their good actions (a dispositional attribution) and let the situation account for their bad ones.”55 In dealing with others, for example, we might attribute our own success to hard work and intelligence, whereas the other person’s succcess is attributed to luck and circumstance.56
We believe that we found evidence for an intellectual attribution bias, where we consider our own actions as being rationally motivated, whereas we see those of others as more emotionally driven. Our commitment to a belief is attributed to a rational decision and intellectual choice (“I’m against gun control because statistics show that crime decreases when gun ownership increases”); whereas the other person’s belief is attributed to need and emotion (“he’s for gun control because he’s a bleeding-heart liberal who needs to identify with the victim”). This intellectual attribution bias applies to religion as a belief system and to God as the subject of belief. As pattern-seeking animals, the matter of the apparent good design of the universe, and the perceived action of a higher intelligence in the day-to-day contingencies of our lives, is a powerful one as an intellectual justification for belief. But we attribute other people’s religious beliefs to their emotional needs and upbringing.
Smart people, because they are more intelligent and better educated, are better able to give intellectual reasons justifying their beliefs that they arrived at for non-intellectual reasons. Yet smart people, like everyone else, recognize that emotional needs and being raised to believe something are how most of us most of the time come to our beliefs. The intellectual attribution bias then kicks in, especially in smart people, to justify those beliefs, no matter how weird they may be.
At the core of the Easy Answer to the Hard Question is the confirmation bias, or the tendency to seek or interpret evidence favorable to already existing beliefs, and to ignore or reinterpret evidence unfavorable to already existing beliefs. Psychologist Raymond Nickerson, in a comprehensive review of the literature on this bias, concluded: “If one were to attempt to identify a single problematic aspect of human reasoning that deserves attention above all others, the confirmation bias would have to be among the candidates for consideration … it appears to be sufficiently strong and pervasive that one is led to wonder whether the bias, by itself, might account for a significant fraction of the disputes, altercations, and misunderstandings that occur among individuals, groups, and nations.”57
Although lawyers purposefully employ a type of confirmation bias in the confrontational style of reasoning used in the courtroom by purposefully selecting evidence that best suits their client and ignoring contradictory evidence (where winning the case trumps the truth or falsity of the claim), psychologists believe that, in fact, we all do this, usually unconsciously. In a 1989 study psychologists Bonnie Sherman and Ziva Kunda presented students with evidence that contradicted a belief they held deeply, and with evidence that supported those same beliefs, they tended to attenuate the validity of the first set of evidence and accentuate the value of the second.58 In a 1989 study with both children and young adults who were exposed to evidence inconsistent with a theory they preferred, Deanna Kuhn found that they “either failed to acknowledge discrepant evidence or attended to it in a selective, distorting manner. Identical evidence was interpreted one way in relation to a favored theory and another way in relation to a theory that was not favored.”59 Even in recall after the experiment, subjects could not remember what the contradictory evidence was that was presented. In a subsequent study in 1994 Kuhn exposed subjects to an audio recording of an actual murder trial and discovered that instead of evaluating the evidence objectively, most subjects first composed a story of what happened, and then sorted through the evidence to see what best fit that story.60 Interestingly, those subjects most focused on finding evidence for a single view of what happened (as opposed to those subjects willing to at least consider an alternative scenario), were the most confident in their decision.
Even in judging something as subjective as personality, psychologists have found that we see what we are looking for in a person. In a series of studies subjects were asked to assess the personality of someone they were about to meet, some given a profile of an introvert (shy, timid, quiet), others given a profile of an extrovert (sociable, talkative, outgoing). When asked to make a personality assessment, those told that the person would be an extrovert asked questions that would lead to that conclusion; the introvert group did the same. They both found in the person the personality they were seeking to find.61 Of course, the confirmation bias works both ways in this experiment. It turns out that the subjects whose personalities were being evaluated tended to give answers that would confirm whatever hypothesis the interrogator was holding.
The confirmation bias is not only pervasive, but its effects can be powerfully influential on people’s lives. In a 1983 study John Darley and Paul Gross showed subjects a video of a child taking a test. One group was told that the child was from a high socioeconomic class while the other group was told that the child was from a low socioeconomic class. The subjects were then asked to evaluate the academic abilities of the child based on the results of the test. Not surprisingly, the high socioeconomic group rated the child’s abilities as above grade level, while the low socioeconomic group rated the child’s abilities as below grade level. In other words, the same data was seen by one group of evaluators differently than the other group, depending on what their expectations were. The data then confirmed those expectations.62
The confirmation bias can also overwhelm one’s emotional states and prejudices. Hypochondriacs interpret every little ache and pain as indications of the next great health calamity, whereas normal people simply ignore such random bodily signals.63 Paranoia is another form of confirmation bias, where if you strongly believe that “they” are out to get you then you will interpret the wide diversity of anomalies and coincidences in life to be evidence in support of that paranoid hypothesis. Likewise, prejudice depends on a type of confirmation bias, where the prejudged expectations of a group’s characteristics leads one to evaluate an individual who is a member of that group in terms of those expectations.64 Even in depression people tend to focus on those events and information that further reinforces the depression, and suppress evidence that things are, in fact, getting better.65 As Nickerson noted in summary: “the presumption of a relationship predisposes one to find evidence of that relationship, even when there is none to be found or, if there is evidence to be found, to overweight it and arrive at a conclusion that goes beyond what the evidence justifies.”66
Even scientists are subject to the confirmation bias. Often in search of a particular phenomenon, scientists interpreting data may see (or select) those data most in support of the hypothesis under question and ignore (or toss out) those data not in support of the hypothesis. Historians of science have determined, for example, that in one of the most famous experiments in the history of science that the confirmation bias was hard at work. In 1919 the British astronomer Arthur Stanley Eddington tested Einstein’s prediction for how much the sun would deflect light coming from a background star during an eclipse (the only time you can see stars behind the sun). It turns out that Eddington’s measurement error was as great as the effect he was measuring. As Stephen Hawking described it, “The British team’s measurement had been sheer luck, or a case of knowing the result they wanted to get, not an uncommon occurrence in science.”67 In going through Eddington’s original data, historians S. Collins and J. Pinch found that “Eddington could only claim to have confirmed Einstein because he used Einstein’s derivations in deciding what his observations really were, while Einstein’s derivations only became accepted because Eddington’s observation seemed to confirm them. Observation and prediction were linked in a circle of mutual confirmation rather than being independent of each other as we would expect according to the conventional idea of an experiment test.”68 In other words, Eddington found what he was looking for. Of course, science contains a special self-correcting mechanism to get around the confirmation bias, and that is that other people will check your results or rerun the experiment. If your results were entirely the product of the confirmation bias, someone will sooner or later catch you on it. That is what sets science apart from all other ways of knowing.
Finally, and most importantly for our purposes here, the confirmation bias operates to confirm and justify weird beliefs. Psychics, fortune tellers, palm readers, and astrologers, for example, all depend on the power of the confirmation bias by telling their clients (some would call them “marks”) what to expect in their future. By offering them one-sided events (instead of two-sided events in which more than one outcome is possible), the occurrence of the event is noticed while the nonoccurrence of the event is not. Consider numerology. The search for meaningful relationships in various measurements and numbers available in almost any structure in the world (including the world itself, as well as the cosmos), has led to numerous observers to find deep meaning in the relationship between these numbers. The process is simple. You can start off with the number you seek and try to find some relationship that ends in that number, or one close to it. Or, more commonly, you crunch through the numbers and see what pops out of the data that looks familiar. In the Great Pyramid, for example (as discussed in Chapter 16 of this book), the ratio of the pyramid’s base to the width of a casing stone is 365, the number of days in the year. Such number crunching with the confirmation bias in place has led people to “discover” in the pyramid the earth’s mean density, the period of precession of the earth’s axis, and the mean temperature of the earth’s surface. As Martin Gardner wryly noted, this is a classic example of “the ease with which an intelligent man, passionately convinced of a theory, can manipulate his subject matter in such a way as to make it conform to precisely held opinions.”69 And the more intelligent the better.
So, in sum, being either high or low in intelligence is orthogonal to and independent of the normalness or weirdness of beliefs one holds. But these variables are not without some interaction effects. High intelligence, as noted in my Easy Answer, makes one skilled at defending beliefs arrived at for non-smart reasons. In Chapter 3 I discuss a study conducted by psychologist David Perkins, in which he found a positive relationship between intelligence and the ability to justify beliefs, and a negative relationship between intelligence and the ability to consider other beliefs as viable.70 That is to say, smart people are better at rationalizing their beliefs with reasoned arguments, but as a consequence they are less open to considering other positions. So, although intelligence does not affect what you believe, it does influence how beliefs are justified, rationalized, and defended after the beliefs are acquired for non-smart reasons.
Enough theory. As the architect Mies van der Rhor noted, God dwells in the details. The following examples of the difference between intelligence and belief are carefully chosen not from the lunatic fringe or culturally marginalized, but from the socially mainstream and especially from the academy. That is what makes the Hard Question so hard. It is one thing to evaluate the claims of a government coverup from a raving conspiratorialist publishing a newsletter out of his garage in Fringeville, Idaho; it is quite another when it comes from a Columbia University political science professor, or from a Temple University history professor, or from an Emory University social scientist, or from a multi-millionaire business genius from Silicon-Valley, or from a Pulitzer Prize winning professor of psychiatry at Harvard University.
UFOs and Alien Abductions
A Weird Belief with Smart Supporters
UFOs and alien abductions meet my criteria for a weird thing because the claim that such sightings and experiences represent actual encounters with extra-terrestrial intelligences is
- unaccepted by most people in astronomy, exobiology, and the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (despite the near universal desire by practitioners to find life of any grade somewhere other than earth),
- extremely unlikely (although not logically impossible), and
- is largely based on anecdotal and uncorroborated evidence. Are UFO and alien abduction claims supported by smart people? While the community of believers used to be populated largely by those in the nooks and crannies of society’s fringes, they have successfully migrated into the cultural mainstream. In the 1950s and 1960s, those who told stories of alien encounters were, at best, snickered at behind closed doors (and sometimes when the doors were wide open) or, at worst, sent to psychiatrists for mental health evaluations. And they were always the butt of jokes amongst scientists. But in the 1970s and 1980s a gradual shift occurred in the credentials of the believers, and in the 1990s they received a boost from the academy that has helped metastasized their beliefs into society’s main body.
Consider Jodi Dean’s widely reviewed 1998 book Aliens in America.71 Dean is a Columbia University Ph.D., a professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and a noted feminist scholar. Her book is published by Cornell University Press and begins like it is going to be a thoughtful sociology of UFOlogy with a thesis that abductees feel “alienated” from modern American society because of economic insecurities, threats of environmental destruction, worldwide militarism, colonialism, racism, misogyny, and other cultural bogeymen: “My argument is that the aliens infiltrating American popular cultures provide icons through which to access the new conditions of democratic politics at the millennium.” Since Dean rejects science and rationality as methods of discriminating between sense and nonsense, we “have no criteria for choosing among policies and verdicts, treatments and claims. Even further, we have no recourse to procedures, be they scientific or juridical, that might provide some ‘supposition of reasonableness.’” For Dean, not only is science not a solution, it is part of the problem: “‘Scientists’ are the ones who have problems with the ‘rationality’ of those in the UFO community. ‘Scientists’ are the ones who feel a need to explain why some people believe in flying saucers, or who dismiss those who do so as ‘distorted’ or ‘prejudiced’ or ‘ignorant.’” Indeed, Dean concludes, since postmodernism has shown all truth to be relative and consensual, then the UFOlogists’ claims are as true as anyone elses’ claims: “The early ufologists fought against essentialist understandings of truth that would inscribe truth in objects (and relations between objects) in the world. Rejecting this idea, they relied on an understanding of truth as consensual. If our living in the world is an outcome of a consensus on reality, then stop and notice that not everyone is consenting to the view of reality espoused by science and government.”72
With this relativist view of truth Dean never tells us whether she believes the UFO/abduction narratives told by her subjects. So I asked her just that in a radio interview, to which she replied: “I believe that they believe their stories.” I acknowledged the clarification but pressed the point: “But what do you believe?” Dean refused to answer the question.73 Fair enough, I suppose, since she is trying to take a nonjudgmental perspective (although I could not get her to offer an opinion even off the air and off the record). But my point here is that by so doing this smart person is lending credence to a weird belief, adding to its credibility as an acceptable tenet of truth that should be part of acceptable social dialogue when, in fact, there is no more evidence for the existence of aliens on earth than there is for fairies (which, in the 1920s, enjoyed their own cultural heyday and the backing of smart people like the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle).74
Where Dean equivocates on the veracity question, Temple University history professor David Jacobs does not. Jacobs, who earned his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin and subsequently published his dissertation as The UFO Controversy in America through Indiana University Press,75 in 1992 wrote Secret Life: Firsthand Accounts of UFO Abductions (even landing a mainstream trade publisher in Simon and Schuster, one of the largest and most prestigious publishing houses in the world).76 In 1998 he ratcheted up the stakes with The Threat: The Secret Agenda — What the Aliens Really Want … and How They Plan to Get it.77 He admits in this latest book that “when I talk about the subject to my colleagues in the academic community, I know they think that my intellectual abilities are seriously impaired.”78 Shortly after The Threat was released, I interviewed Jacobs on my weekly NPR radio show in Los Angeles. His intellectual abilities are not impaired in the least. I found him to be bright, articulate, and completely committed to his belief. He spoke like an academic, explained his theory and evidence with the cool dispatch of a seasoned scholar, and acted as if this claim were no different than discussing some other aspect of twentieth-century American history, which he teaches.79
Yet Jacobs’ books resound with the anthem “I know this sounds weird, but I’m a smart guy.” His first book includes a foreword by Harvard’s John Mack (more on Mack below), who praises Jacobs as “scholarly and dispassionate,” the product of “rigorous scholarship,” “careful observation,” and “meticulous documentation.”80 In his second book his Ph.D. graces not only the cover, but appears as a header on every page, again punching home the message to the reader that no matter how weird it all seems, a Doctor of Philosophy is endorsing it. Jacobs’ narrative style is designed to sound scholarly and scientific. He speaks of his “research,” the “methodologies” used, his fellow “investigators,” their “huge database,” the “documentation” in support of the database, the numerous “theories,” “hypotheses,” and “evidence” that confirms not only the fact that the aliens are here, but enlightens us about their agenda. Even though this field of study has not one iota of physical evidence — all claims depend entirely on blurry photographs, grainy videos, recovered memories through hypnosis, and endless anecdotes about things that go bump in the night — Jacobs admits these limitations of his “data,” but argues that if you combine them you can make the leap from skepticism to belief: “Our encounters with the abduction phenomenon have often come through the haze of confabulation, channeling, and unreliable memories reported by inexperienced or incompetent researchers. It smacks so much of cultural fantasy and psychogenesis that the barriers to acceptance of its reality seem insurmountable.” Indeed, but never underestimate the power of belief. “Yet, I am persuaded that the abduction phenomenon is real. And as a result, the intellectual safety net with which I operated for so many years is now gone. I am as vulnerable as the abductees themselves. I should ‘know better,’ but I embrace as real a scenario that is both embarrassing and difficult to defend.” If the evidence is so weak for this phenomenon, then how can a smart guy like Jacobs believe in it? His answer, coming in the final pages of the book, closes the belief off to counter evidence: “The aliens have fooled us. They lulled us into an attitude of disbelief, and hence complacency, at the very beginning of our awareness of their presence.”81 It is the perfect circular (and impenetrable) argument. The aliens have either caused your belief or your skepticism. Either way, aliens exist.
Whereas Jacobs admits that his evidence is anecdotal and thus nonfalsifiable, Emory University’s Courtney Brown, a professor of political science with a couple of bestselling books on aliens and UFOs by mainstream publishers, grounds his beliefs on a method of “data collection” he calls “Scientific Remote Viewing.” SRV (both the name and the abbreviation are “registered service marks of Farsight, Inc.,” so noted on his copyright page). SRV, more commonly known as Remote Viewing, is the process employed by a group of researchers hired by the CIA to try to close the “psi gap” (similar to the missile gap) between the U.S. and the USSR in the 1980s (one of them, Ed Dames, was Brown’s mentor). During the cold war there was fear on the part of some American government officials that the Russians might have made greater advances in psychic power. So the CIA established a small department that spent $20 million in ten years to determine if they could remote view the location of missile silos, MIAs, and gather other intelligence information. The name is almost self-explanatory. To remote view you sit in a room and attempt to “see” (in your mind’s eye, of sorts) the target object whose location could be anywhere in the world. After learning the RV ropes, from his home in the suburbs of Atlanta and then from his own institute dedicated to promoting SRV — The Farsight Institute — Brown began to remote view aliens and extra-terrestrials.
Like Jacobs’ degree, Brown’s “Ph.D.” is prominently displayed on his books. Interestingly, however, his Emory University connection is no where to be found in his second book, Cosmic Explorers: Scientific Remote Viewing, Extraterrestrials, and a Message for Mankind.82 I asked him about this in a 1999 radio interview. Emory, it would seem, wants nothing to do with UFOlogy and alien encounters — Brown had to sign a document specifying that when he is discussing his encounters with aliens to the media and the public no mention of the university is to be made. And, like Jacobs, Brown came off on the air as a thoughtful and intelligent scientist “just following the data” (as they are all wont to say) wherever that might lead.83
The claims in Brown’s two books are nothing short of spectacularly weird. Through his numerous SRV sessions he says he has spoken with Jesus and Buddha (both, apparently, are advanced aliens), visited other inhabited planets, time traveled to Mars back when it was fully inhabited by intelligent ETs, and has even determined that aliens are living among us — one group in particular resides underground in New Mexico. When I asked him about these unusual claims on the air he balked, redirecting the conversation to the “scientific” aspects of remote viewing, how valid and reliable a method it is for collecting data, how as a social scientist he has applied the rigorous methodologies of the statistical sciences to his new found research methodology, and that this should all be taken very seriously by scientists. (His first book, published in 1996, was entitled Cosmic Voyage: A Scientific Discovery of Extraterrestrials Visiting Earth.84) The rhetoric of his written narrative also wafts with scientism meant to convey the message that this weird thing is being presented by a very smart person. Consider just one randomly chosen passage:
A P4 1/2S is the same as a P4 1/2, but it is a sketch rather than a verbal description. When the viewer perceives some visual data in Phase 4 that can be sketched, the viewer writes “P4 1/2S” in either the physicals or the subspace column, depending on whether the sketch is to be of something in physical reality or subspace reality. The viewer then takes another piece of paper, positions it lengthwise, labels it P4 1/2S centered at the top, and gives it a page number that is the same as the matrix page containing the column entry “P4 1/2S,” with an A appended to it. Thus, if the entry for the P4 1/2S is located on page 9, then the P4 1/2S sketch is located on page 9A.85
What this passage describes is different methods a remote viewer can use to record different aspects of the fantasy trip: either it is a voyage through the physical world or through “subspace” existence. My point is not to ridicule through obfuscation but to reveal the lengths smart people will go to in order to rationalize a weird belief. When Brown appears on Art Bell’s late night radio show he can wax poetic about alien invasions and Jesus’ advice. But when he’s on my show — by definition a science show broadcast in Southern California and listened to by many from the Caltech, JPL, and aerospace communities, he wants only to discuss the rigors of his scientific methodologies.
In like manner did the multi-millionaire Silicon Valley business genius Joe Firmage respond when I interviewed him on the radio.86 The 28-year old founder of the $3 billion Internet company USWeb (who had already sold his first Internet company for $24 million when he was only 19), he requested that he be introduced as the founder and chairman of the International Space Sciences Organization (ISSO) and was interested only in discussing his love of science and his new work as a “scientist” for ISSO (to my knowledge he has no formal training as a scientist). What about all those press reports that erupted immediately following his announcement that he was quitting USWeb to pursue his belief that UFOs have landed and that the United States government had captured some of the alien technology and “back-engineered” it and fed it to the American science and technology industries? They exaggerated and distorted what he really believes, Firmage explained. He never actually said that he believed the U.S. government stole alien technologies. Nor did he really want to elaborate upon a 1997 experience he had (he seemed genuinely uncomfortable when I brought it up) with an alien intelligence. The media, he explained, exaggerated that one as well. This I found odd, even disingenuous, since it was his own public relations company that generated all the media attention, including the stories of stolen alien technology and his life-changing alien encounter.
In the fall of 1997 Firmage says that he was awakened in the early morning to see “a remarkable being, clothed in brilliant white light hovering over my bed.” The being asked Firmage: “Why have you called me here?” Firmage says he replied: “I want to travel in space.” The alien questioned his desire and inquired why such a wish should be granted. “Because I’m willing to die for it,” Firmage answered. At this point, says Firmage, out of the alien being “emerged an electric blue sphere, just smaller than a basketball … It left his body, floated down and entered me. Instantly I was overcome by the most unimaginable ecstasy I have ever experienced, a pleasure vastly beyond orgasm … Something had been given to me.” The result was firmage’s ISSO and his 1999 Internet electronic book immodestly entitled The Truth, a rambling 244-page manuscript filled with warnings to humanity that could have been taken out of a 1950’s B science fiction film. The book is heavily sprinkled with the jargon of physics and aeronautics, including Firmage’s goal to convince the “scientific establishment” of the reality of UFOs and such advanced technologies as Zero Point Energy from the vacuum of space, “propellantless propulsion” and “gravitational propulsion” for “greater-than-light” travel, “vacuum fluctuations” to alter “gravitational and inertial masses,” and the like.87
Again, my point is not to belittle, but to understand. Why would a smart man like Joe Firmage give up such a remarkably lucrative and successful career as a Silicon Valley wizard to chase the chimera of aliens? Well, he was raised as a Mormon but in his teen years he “began to have questions about the more dogmatic aspects of the religion.” Mormons believe in direct human-angel contact based on the claim that the Church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was contacted by the angel Mormoni and guided to the sacred golden tablets from which the Book of Mormon was written. In The Truth, Firmage explains that the revelation “was received by a man named Joseph Smith, whose descriptions of encounters with brilliant, white-clothed beings are almost indistinguishable from many modern-day accounts of first-hand encounters with ‘visitors’.”88 So, Joseph Smith had a close encounter of the third kind. And apparently he was by no means the first. Eighteen hundred years earlier St. John the Divine received his “revelation” from which the last book in the Bible was written, and shortly before that a carpenter from the tiny hamlet of Nazareth experienced his own visions and epiphanies from on high. Although he does not say it directly, the inference is clear: Jesus the Christ, St. John the Divine, Joseph Smith, and Joseph Firmage each made contact with one of these higher beings, and as a consequence changed the world. Firmage found his calling, and the meaning of his close encounters:
One of the purposes of this Internet book is to share with each of you fundamentally new ideas — ideas that one day could transform the world. In this work, I wish to propose a way to completely restructure over time our economic institutions to operate in a manner compatible with a living Earth, while preserving the proven entrepreneurial creativity that has built a remarkable modern civilization… Is this a radical proposal? Absolutely. Is it insane? Yes. Is it a utopian fantasy? Totally. Radical and insane proposals are necessary to save a short-sighted and dangerously hubris nation from self-destruction… My business partner and I built USWeb Corporation, the largest Internet services company on the planet, so I know what I am talking about creating here.89
Indeed he does. He is a smart man with a weird belief and a lot of money to legitimize it. But neither the smarts nor the money alter one iota the fact that there exists not one piece of tangible evidence of alien visitation. And where evidence is lacking, the mind fills in the gaps, and smart minds are better at gap filling.
Cornell University, Emory University, Temple University, and Silicon Valley are impressive venues from which to launch weird salvos, but UFOlogists and the alien experiencer (the preferred term to “abduction”) community received its biggest boost in 1994 with the publication of Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens by Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Mack.90 Mack’s M.D. is boldly emblazoned on the cover, along with “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” (awarded for a biography of T. E. Lawrence, not a book on psychiatry), thereby establishing credibility. The publisher might as well have printed at the bottom of the dust jacket: “smart man endorses weird belief.” Mack admits in his introduction that when he first heard about abductee proponent and pioneer Budd Hopkins, and of people claiming to have been abducted by aliens, “I then said something to the effect that he must be crazy and so must they.” But when Mack met some of them “they seemed in other respects quite sane.” Further, as far as he could tell these folks had nothing to gain and everything to lose in coming forth with such stories, therefore “they were troubled as a consequence of something that had apparently happened to them.” Mack’s skepticism morphed into belief after interviewing over a hundred alien experiencers, concluding that “there was nothing to suggest that their stories were delusional, a misinterpretation of dreams, or the product of fantasy. None of them seemed like people who would concoct a strange story for some personal purpose.”91
Agreed, but is “concoct” the right word? I think not. “Experiencer” is an apt description because there is no doubt that the experiences these people have had are very real. The core question is this: does the experience represent something exclusively inside the mind or outside in the real world? Since there is no physical evidence to confirm the validity of the latter hypothesis, the logical conclusion to draw, knowing what we do about the fantastic imagery the brain is capable of producing, is that experiencer’s experiences are nothing more than mental representations of strictly internal brain phenomena. Their motivation for telling Mack and others about these experiences, assuming (naively perhaps) that they do not do it for the public attention, fame, or money, is external validation of an internal process. And the more prestigious the source of that validation — the “smarter” the validator is, so to speak — the more valid becomes the experience: “Hey, I’m not losing my mind — that smart guy at Harvard says it’s real.”
The Harvard affiliation with such fringe elements was not lost on the university’s administration, who made motions to reign in Mack and squelch his alien agenda, but he retained a lawyer, held his ground on the issue of academic freedom (Mack is tenured), and won the right to continue his academic center called PEER, Program for Extraordinary Experience Research. Many questioned his motives. “He enjoys being the center of attention,” said Arnold S. Relman, professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School, who led the formal academic investigation of Mack’s research. “He’s not taken seriously by his colleagues anymore,” Relman continued, “but in the interests of academic freedom, Harvard can afford to have a couple of oddballs.”92
The consequences of this shift in belief for Mack — his own form of validation in a way — were profound: “What the abduction phenomenon has led me … to see is that we participate in a universe or universes that are filled with intelligences from which we have cut ourselves off, having lost the senses by which we might know them.” However, allow me to fill in the ellipses: “I would now say inevitably.” (Read it again with the ellipses filled.) Why inevitably? Mack’s answer is enlightening: “It has become clear to me also that our restricted worldview or paradigm lies behind most of the major destructive patterns that threaten the human future — mindless corporate acquisitiveness that perpetuates vast differences between rich and poor and contributes to hunger and disease; ethnonational violence resulting in mass killing which could grow into a nuclear holocaust; and ecological destruction on a scale that threatens the survival of the earth’s living systems.”93
The story is as old as the science fiction genre from which it sprang, and reveals the deeper mythic motif behind encounter narratives as a type of secular theology, with UFOs and aliens as gods and messiahs coming down to rescue us from our self-imposed destruction — think of Robert Wise’s 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still, where the superior alien intelligence in this Christ allegory (the alien’s Earth name was “Mr. Carpenter”) comes to save the planet from nuclear armageddon. Here we glimpse a possible motive for Mack. Is he a Secular Saint, Moses come down from the Harvard mountain to mingle with the masses and enlighten us to the true meaning of the cosmos? This is, perhaps, an exaggeration, but there is something deeper in Mack’s story that he reveals toward the end of the introduction to his book, and that is his fascination with Thomas Kuhn’s concept of the paradigm, and the revolutionary paradigm shift:
I knew Tom Kuhn since childhood, for his parents and mine were friends in New York and I had often attended eggnog parties at Christmastime in the Kuhns’ home. What I found most hopeful was Kuhn’s observation that the Western scientific paradigm had come to assume the rigidity of a theology, and that this belief system was held in place by the structures, categories, and polarities of language, such as real/unreal, exists/does not exist, objective/subjective, intrapsychic/external world, and happened/did not happen. He suggested that in pursuing my investigations I suspend to the degree that I was able all of these language forms and simply collect raw information, putting aside whether or not what I was learning fit any particular worldview. Later I would see what I had found and whether any coherent theoretical formulation would be possible.94
There is remarkable irony in this statement — one I find difficult to believe Kuhn would endorse — because one of the main points of Kuhn’s revolutionary 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, is that it is virtually impossible for any of us to “suspend … language forms and simply collect raw information.” We are all embedded in a worldview, locked in a paradigm, and ensconced in a culture. And, as we saw, the attribution and confirmation biases are all powerful and pervasive that none of us can escape. The language forms of alien abduction narratives are very much a part of a larger culture in twentieth-century America that includes science fiction literature about aliens, the actual exploration of space, films and television programs about spacecraft and aliens, and especially the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) being conducted by mainstream scientists. This is, in large part, the explanation skeptics offer for the consistency of the abduction stories — the memory motifs come from these commonly experienced cultural inputs. But the point is that Mack’s alleged unsullied collection of “raw information” seems disingenuous from what we know about how beliefs are formed. (I would also point out — though there is no way that Mack would know this from his one foray into the paranormal — that the identification of the Kuhnian paradigm and the call for a revolutionary shift to the believer’s radical idea, is made by nearly every claimant who is out of the mainstream, from UFOlogists and psychic investigators to proponents of cold fusion and perpetual motion machines.) Joe Friday’s “Just the facts mame” sounds good in principle, but is never conducted in practice. All observations are filtered through a model or theory, so at some point Mack’s observations within a skeptical paradigm became data in support of a believing paradigm. How did this happen?
John Mack is smart enough to realize that the data and data collection techniques he and others use in drawing out these abduction narratives are questionable to say the least. Hypnotic regression, fantasy role playing, and suggestive talk therapy all leading to so-called recovered memories, now well known to actually generate false memories. Of the alleged disappearance of abductees, Mack admits that “there is no firm proof that abduction was the cause of their absence.” The scars from alien surgeries, Mack admits, are “usually too trivial by themselves to be medically significant.” Of the missing babies from alien-human sexual encounters, Mack notes that there is “not yet a case where a physician has documented that a fetus has disappeared in relation to an abduction.” And of the evidence in total, Mack confesses that it is “maddeningly subtle and difficult to corroborate with as much supporting data as firm proof would require.”95
To accept these shortcomings and continue his work Mack must make a reality leap of Kuhnian proportions. The limitation is not in our methodologies of research, it is in the subjects themselves: “If the abduction phenomenon, as I suspect, manifests itself in our physical space/time world but is not of it in a literal sense, our notions of accuracy of recall regarding what did or did not ‘happen’ (Kuhn’s advice about suspending categories seems relevant here) may not apply, at least not in the literal physical sense.”96 These aliens may not be from “space,” as in outer space, but may be from another dimension, accessible only through these ephemeral mental states and thus immune to skeptics’ demand for a body or artifact from the spacecraft. This may be a Kuhnian model of science, but it is not Popperian since there is no way to falsify the claims. Mack’s retreat to allowing “aliens” to be inner dimensional beings capable of detection only in the minds of experiencers is indistinguishable from my own hypothesis that they are entirely the product of neural activity. With no way to distinguish between these two hypotheses, we are out of the realm of science and into the field of creative literature. Science fiction, I think, would more adequately describe this entire field.
The epistemological problems from the beginning, then, are enormous, as Mack himself confesses in giving up the game of science entirely: “In this work, as in any clinically sound investigation, the psyche of the investigator, or, more accurately, the interaction of the psyches of the client and the clinician, is the means of gaining knowledge… Thus experience, the reporting of that experience, and the receiving of that experience through the psyche of the investigator are, in the absence of physical verification or ‘proof’ … the only ways that we can know about abductions.”97 Four hundred pages later, in a final section entitled “Paradigm Shift,” Mack once again calls for a change comparable to the Copernican Revolution (a favorite analogy among paranormalists and fringers of all stripes): “It would appear that what is required is a kind of cultural ego death, more profoundly shattering (a word that many abductees use when they acknowledge the actuality of their experiences) than the Copernican revolution … ”98 How else are we to understand these alien intelligences?: “It is an intelligence that provides enough evidence that something profoundly important is at work, but it does not offer the kinds of proof that would satisfy an exclusively empirical, rationalistic way of knowing.”99
As Mack told Robert Boynton in Esquire magazine, “People always think that aliens are either real or psychological, and I ask them to consider the possibility that they are somehow both. But that means our entire definition of reality has to change.” Boynton notes that Mack has long been searching for that alternate reality through such trendy New Age beliefs as EST and holotropic breathing techniques: “He uses the latter to attain a trancelike state. During one session, he had a past-life experience in which he was a sixteenth-century Russian who had to watch while a band of Mongols decapitated his four-year-old son.”100 In fact, Mack admitted to Carl Sagan that “I wasn’t looking for this. There’s nothing in my background that prepared me. It’s completely persuasive because of the emotional power of these experiences.”101 In a revealing interview in Time magazine Mack said “I don’t know why there’s such a zeal to find a conventional physical explanation. We’ve lost all that ability to know a world beyond the physical. I am a bridge between those two worlds.”102
Mack’s bridge has expanded into another book, Passport to the Cosmos, in which he once again pleads that “I am not in this book seeking to establish the material reality of the alien abduction phenomenon … rather, I am more concerned with the meaning of these experiences for the so-called abductees and for humankind more generally.”103 In this sense, Mack’s abduction belief system operates much like religion and other faith-based beliefs, in that for those who believe proof is not necessary, for those who do not believe, proof is not possible. In other words, the belief in UFOs and alien abductions, like that of other weird beliefs, is orthogonal to and independent of the evidence for or against it, or the intelligence of its proponents, which makes my point. Q.E.D.
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- Ibid., 8–10.
- Dean appeared on my “Science Talk” radio show on KPCC, the NPR affiliate for Southern California, during her book tour in the fall of 1998. I subsequently put the question to her at a conference in 2000 but still received no clear answer.
- See Randi, J. 1982. Flim-Flam! Buffalo: Prometheus Books.
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- Ibid., 12.
- Jacobs appeared on my “Science Talk” radio show on KPCC, the NPR affiliate for Southern California, during his book tour in the fall of 1998.
- Jacobs, 1992, 10–11.
- Ibid., 256–258.
- Brown, C. 1999. Cosmic Explorers: Scientific Remote Viewing, Extraterrestrials, and a Message for Mankind. New York: Dutton.
- Brown appeared on my “Science Talk” radio show on KPCC, the NPR affiliate for Southern California, during his book tour in the spring of 1999.
- Brown, C. 1996. Cosmic Voyage: A Scientific Discovery of Extraterrestrials Visiting Earth. New York: Dutton. 28. Brown, 1999, 58.
- Firmage appeared on my “Science Talk” radio show on KPCC, the NPR affiliate for Southern California, during his book tour in the spring of 1999.
- Firmage, J. 1999. The Truth. Internet electronic book produced by the International Space Sciences Organization. When printed out in the web page format it came out at 244 pages.
- Ibid., 237.
- Ibid., 229.
- Ibid., 230.
- Mack, J. 1994. Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens. New York: Scribners.
- Ibid., 1–2.
- Quoted in Lucas, Michael. 2001. “Venturing From Shadows Into Light: They claim to have been abducted bby aliens. A Harvard research psychiatrist backs them.” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 4.
- Ibid., 3–4.
- Ibid., 20.
- Ibid., 34–35.
- Ibid., 24.
- Ibid., 420.
- Ibid., 421.
- Boynton, R. S. 1994. “Professor Mack, Phone Home.” Esquire. March, 48.
- Sagan, C. 1996. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House, 153.
- Quoted in Sagan, 1996, 174.
- Mack, J. 1999. Passport to the Cosmos: Human Transformation and Alien Encounters. New York: Crown.