Actually, I don't believe in "spooks," ESP, alien abductions, or much of the other paranormal rot that crops up so often this time of year, but apparently 24% of 1,013 polled adults do. While I take issue with surveys asking a relatively insignificant amount of people their opinion and then projecting those numbers on the whole of the population, I have run into many people who have some, erm, interesting ideas about rather ordinary phenomena. I've been told that cats can detect human souls, that saber-tooth cats were aquatic predators and bit their prey sideways, that there are living pterosaurs in Papua New Guinea (the "Ropen"), and that an abandoned mine shaft was filled with "spirit orbs," among other things, and I've seen no real evidence to support any of these ideas. Such discussions, however, usually make me want to buy a crate of Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World and distribute them to those who espouse such notions.
The last "unexplained" phenomena is perhaps my favorite, some people not realizing that when you take a flash picture in a dusty old mine you're going to capture (gasp) dust on film, the little bright lights being nothing more than what has been kicked up by the person entering the room, cave, mine, or whatever you like. Not surprisingly, people who've tried to tell me that spirit orbs are real often believe in other odd explanations of natural phenomena, preferring to believe in supernatural explanations than really pursue the questions that they have about what they experienced.
What is somewhat surprising about the new survey, however, is that more people seem to believe in ESP than in witchcraft or ghosts, respectively, the majority of those believing in ESP being white college graduates. Strangely enough, I also got this impression from a town-wide yard sale I visited a few months ago, lots of upper middle-class families selling various books about balancing body energies, detecting psychic waves, and similar topics. The success of the scam The Secret alone shows how easily people are taken in by this sort of thing, and I can't help but wonder why that is so. Obviously, in the case of The Secret, the theme is based upon Western materialistic culture and appeals to the desires of a path to living Your Best Life Now (the Christian version of a similar scam), but it seems that as science moves forward public understanding is still mired to greater or lesser extent in explanations that have long been abandoned. Indeed, old ideas die hard, especially when packaged as the "wisdom of the ancients" who somehow knew more about the way the universe works than we do today.
I don't mean to be overly condescending, but it boggles (as opposed to scrabbles) the mind how so many people can be taken in my loony ideas that were discredited long ago. The natural world is absolutely amazing, science making sense of phenomena that were previously left only to supernatural interpretation, and I can't quite seem to understand why so many prefer fanciful explanations to the more-enthralling reality of nature. Why isn't the desire to know more about the actual world we live in as extolled as "having faith" in unknowable constructs that we place ourselves at the mercy of?
you said:While I take issue with surveys asking a relatively insignificant amount of people their opinion and then projecting those numbers on the whole of the population
So you're a scientist who doesn't believe in probability theory, specifically you don't believe in random sampling? Now I can't speak to this particular survey's methodology, but the theory and method behind population polling and sampling are pretty well established and kind of "statistics 101" material. [That doesn't mean that it's not done poorly sometimes or sometimes completely fudged.] I'm confused by your blanket skepticism.
That said, people are idiots re: tarot cards, astrology, UFOs, communion, bris, ramadan, krishna, nirvana, and all sorts of other silly superstitions. I'm not sure why this surprises.
Todd; I am skeptical of surveys such as this one because the questions asked are not provided and the answers of a very small number of people are being projected on a population many, many times larger. This doesn't mean that I don't "believe" random sampling or probability theory works, but to me all this survey reveals (as I stated) was that about a quarter of the people surveyed held on particular idea or another. Who knows what the results could be if a much larger sample were taken? What it comes down to is that I feel this is an estimate based upon a small sample and should not be touted as being "the rule" for the U.S. population.
RE: the second half the of the comment, I try to take the approach that people believe in a lot of nutty stuff but they are not necessarily idiots themselves, i.e. they may be bright and intelligent people, but they're not thinking things through in certain areas and prefer superstition. That is what is most surprising to me; many people are curious about the natural world or strange phenomena but they don't follow through to really educate themselves about what they saw (or think they saw). That's what I find most irksome.
I agree that "saber-tooth cats bit their prey sideways" would indeed be idiocy, as silly as them habitually running around on dry savannas.
Did they bring their prey up trees? Unlikely, since they were the top predator.
Chasing prey into waterholes and attacking from behind seems the safest way for a bulky cat to get a meal, if there were no crocs in the water.
So why did they die off? Humans with weapons? Climate change? Not the main reason. Most likely prey became less open-water dependent due to natural selection by these cats.
Hey! I had a cat that could detect people who didn't like or were were afraid of cats ... and promptly sit in their laps (I scraped quite a few people off my ceilings).
People who don't like cats are pretty close to being souless ...
I have more than a little sympathy for ghost believers. While I agree that ghosts are folklore and superstition, hauntings -- the subjective experience of some kind of incorporeal presence -- are quite real. It's not all credulity and suggestibility. Given the right combination of cognitive, perceptual, psychological, and environmental conditions*, anyone** can experience the type of phenomena that the superstitious attribute to ghosts.
It's a shame that the supernatural woo so thoroughly and unfairly taints the very human experience of being haunted that no one will touch it, because it would be a terrific subject for multidisciplinary study.
* Imagine, say, hypnopompic dreaming and false pattern detection coupled with sudden temperature changes and environmental infrasound.
** Yes. Yes I have. No, I don't believe in ghosts, but that was one strange house to live in.
It is a little frightening how many people you run into that believe in supernaturalness explaining everything in the world around them. I had a debate the other day with a girl who was convinced that things like microchips, velcro, and the plastic paper New Zealand prints its money on were all reverse engineered from the spaceship at Rosewell.
Now I personally find the paranormal interesting, but not out believe in any of it, but rather I find it like reading sci-fi or horror (just presented as though it was real ;p ).
Many areas of it come across as just really bad fiction though, and I can't stand it. Ghosts and alien abduction in particular I dismiss out right (the Grays I thought Brian summarized brilliantly and perfectly in his Dinosauriod post).
Now as I've read up a lot on especially UFOs and cryptozoology stuff I'm willing to say I defend the concept of studying these sorts of things within reason. Some of these phenomenon DO have evidence to support SOMETHING happened.
That being said I'm not supporting the CONCLUSIONS people jump to about them. I DO NOT believe Dinosaurs are still roaming the Congo or that Nessie is a plesiosaur. I DO NOT believe UFO's are spacecraft manned by aliens.
Though at the same time I do believe that some of these phenomenon are happening. In the sense that something unknown as of yet (but 99% likely a low key, but still exciting new to science explanation) is happening.
I just think it is important before dismissing these events outright as BS it is important not to fall into the trap of establishing a total skeptical dogma on the subject.
After all scientific methodology and reason states you need to keep an open mind to the evidence.
Now a lot of evidence on these subjects is based on eye witnesses, and studies show that peoples accounts and perceptions are pretty inaccurate (a fun example recently is I pulled a month long prank on a ghost believing friend of mine by setting his alarm clock for random times when I was at his place, and put the idea in his head it might be a ghost when he told me of the clocks bizarre going off, and next thing you know he thought his alarm clock was haunted).
At the same time especially with the UFO phenomenon people are still taking photos of unexplainable "somethings" in the sky. I personally refuse to call them craft as though the photos constitute proof of something it doesn't prove their solid objects that alone constructed vessels.
The one phenomenon I feel is something truly unexplained, and has a STRONG body of evidence for is Cattle Mutilation (no pun intended on body of evidence). There have been thousands of cows (and other forms of live stock) killed throughout the world in the last 3 decades that eludes all logical explanation. True mutilation cases (as in ones that have been examined by trained veterinarians NOT Ufologists!) can not be written off as predation as has been the official stance of many governments. These dead animals are found with entire sections of tissue and often organs removed by sharp blade like incisions, no traces of blood around or INSIDE the corpse, and no sign of the animal struggling.
That certainly cant be pulled off by wolves, wild dogs, big cats or whatever known predator you insert. At the same time Im not asserting or implying at all aliens are doing it. That is the problem though. The majority who currently really examine these events (Ufologists) explain these events as that. Because like a creationist they have a predetermined explanation they no doubt miss key evidence that could help actually explain them.
The problem is that scientists have the same problem, but with a different answer. Anything that is currently claimed to be paranormal and undefined in current scientific strands by definition cant exist Does this not sound kind of familiar of creationists arguing against good science?
The difference being paranormal investigators in CERTAIN fields of phenomenon do bring SOME evidence of something to the subject. Creationists of course do not.
The real problem I think has become due to the publics embracing the crazy explanations of the phenomenon that scientists are hesitant to go near them. One the explanations are just too implausible to accept, and second it would look bad to study. After all if Brian suddenly joined an expedition to look into the Loch Ness Monster hed immediately be said to believe in monsters and a living dinosaur. Not because he did, but because the public thinks that is what such studies entail.
(I think lake monsters have been debunked by mating Sturgeon behavior for the record having literally run into a sturgeon in the Okanogan Lake, home of Canadas famous lake monster no less, I can say that sturgeons are very monster like in the flesh!)
A great book (best I read last year) on a scientific study of a "paranormal" phenomenon called Hunt for the Skinwalker by Dr. Colm A. Kelleher and George Knapp outlines these failings when it comes to the modern scientific community and phenomenons. Dr. Kelleher is one of the world's leading biochemestry experts on Mad Cow, and a pretty cut edge scientist in that field. Reading the book you can see how the bringing of qualified researchers could open up whole new realms of science.
At the same time if you pick up the book I warn you the actual study he partakes in is very fun sci-fi story, but is in my opinion just that a great story. It is mostly reliant on 4 eye witnesses, none of whom are scientists or without something to gain. However the actual study methodology and scientific approach were both excellent and fascinating. They of course came up with no scientific proof of anything. Just anecdotal, but it is an excellent critique of the scientific community on the subject of the paranormal a very strong research approach. The alleged events and sighting are also an excellent sci-fi story.
The one phenomenon I feel is something truly unexplained, and has a STRONG body of evidence for is Cattle Mutilation
Except that in the case of "Human Mutilation" (i.e., "Ripper" type serial killers) we've seen time and again where medical and forensic experts claim the killer must be a surgeon because of the precision of the mutilations, only to find out that the killer is just a garden-variety homicidal maniac with a penchant for overkill.
Again, this is a case where perfectly rational people see mysteries that aren't there. And that's what's fascinating to me about the "paranormal."
IIRC, in The Demon-Haunted World Sagan dismisses alien abduction by comparing it to medieval tales of elf-mounds, changelings, etc. (e.g. Thomas of Erceldoune). This I thought was exactly the wrong approach. The similarity of abduction tales across time and cultures indicates to me that something is going on, although I think that something is entirely human and subjective. What that might be is the real question. The reality/unreality of the perceived objective phenomena is to me a trivial and boring question.
Somewhere between environmental cues and cognitive function, there's a place where the system trips up and perfectly rational, functional people perceive entire, elaborate scenarios involving aliens or elves, ghosts or demons, trolls or yeti, cattle mutilators or killer surgeons. And yet we know next to nothing about the trigger mechanisms or the neurocognitive systems in play.
John; I actually just read an article about that. Cats, being the finicky little buggers they are, like to get to know people on their own terms. People who immediately bend down and go "Kitty!" are often ignored and avoided, whereas people who don't care are preferred by the cats as the feline can approach them on it's own terms.
HP; I agree that the feeling of being "haunted" is an intersting one and I think it would be a great thing to study, and (especially as a kid) I've had the familiar feelings of being watched by something or generally uneasy when alone in the woods at night. I wouldn't call such experiences being haunted (being there's nothing to be haunted by, if we're talking ghosts), but I don't deny that people are having a reaction to something real (i.e. weird noses made by pipes in the basement) or imaginary. What I was pondering here was why people decide that they've had a supernatural experience rather than try to figure out what actually happened.
Traumador; You bring up a point that's parallel to HP's; in many cases I don't doubt that people experience or saw something, I just don't have to believe that that something was supernatural or paranormal in nature. You bring up lake monsters as an example, and while I reject that these animals are plesiosaurs or mesozoic hold-overs, it could be a new species of a group of animals relatively well-known to us. I know Darren has written about this recently, and while the term "cryptozoology" triggers thoughts of fringe science in my mind more than anything else, there are still animals out there unknown to science (I just don't have to believe that non-avian dinosaurs are still around).
I've also had a number of short arguments with some family members over UFO's; I don't believe in them at all. I don't doubt that many people have seen something, but as Carl Sagan has pointed out in many of his writings, there is not one case with substantial evidence to prove that we're being visited by extraterrestrials. Abduction stories are even more absurd, and like I mentioned in my discussion of the Dinosauroid, accounts of aliens show a heavy amount of anthropocentric bias. I'm sure some of these people genuinely believe these things (like the woman who believes that she essentially has grown up with a family of Bigfoot that live around her house), but I haven't seen anything that would suggest that these phenomena could not easily be something else and more "usual."
You're right, though, in that there is something of a reluctance to go near some of these issues, usually because the evidence is so poor that little more can be said outside "Someone thinks they saw something." On top of that, the more fringe aspects can taint, as you note, areas of research that are worthy of study in one way or another (i.e. the psychology/sociology of people who believe they've seen Bigfoot), the reluctant of most scientists to go near the issues making people think that there really is something going on or that the scientific community is hiding something.
One more thought: Apart from idle curiosity, one reason to study these mechanisms is that many -- if not most -- people will at some point in their lives encounter "high strangeness" that they are at a loss to explain without recourse to the supernatural. We do these people a great disservice by telling them they're crazy or stupid, and at the same time we discredit rational materialism and send them off into the arms of charlatans who will take advantage of them.
Laelaps: I picked up the distinction between "ghosts" and "hauntings" from a radio interview I heard with a clinical psychologist who works with people who have been "haunted" (many of whom wind up divorced, unemployed, etc.). His working definition is that "ghost" describes the objective perception and "haunting" describes the subjective experience.
I don't know if there's a more concise and accurate way to make the subjective/objective distinction, but I'm open to suggestion.
On preview: Oops. I mean "suggestions." :)
Oh, and what a fun discussion for the Halloween season!
I agree. I really don't understand how people would rather believe we are made from dust and ribs than pursue and understanding of the evolutionary biology. I think science needs to work on advertising its philosophy, though. Even in my classroom people were arguing that because science was provisional, it could never be trusted, and that they were better off trusting a dogma. I'm serious. Have you ever seen the movie "Thanks for Smoking". I'd like there to be a squads all around the world of good speakers who understand science and know how to encourage others into understanding that the natural explanations we have make much more sense of the facts than the supernatural.
It's also that teachers are incompetent in science. Even my biology teacher seemed to be weary on saying FOSSILS existed, and I go to a private school. My Philosophy teacher told the class that the theory of evolution was in crisis because of some fossil findings of an extinct hominid ** Article on National Geographic. Science blogs covered this, but my philosophy teacher has no idea that Science Blogs exists, and she won't bother do hardcore research on it because she takes National Geographic to be a good source.
Here is where Science Blogs covered the National Geographic stupidity: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/08/clearly_bloggers_need_to_tak…
Cats, being the finicky little buggers they are, like to get to know people on their own terms. People who immediately bend down and go "Kitty!" are often ignored and avoided, whereas people who don't care are preferred by the cats as the feline can approach them on it's own terms.
I don't care what anybody says, our little "missionary" was out to convert the poor lost cataphobes!
At the risk of taking over your comments thread (and obsessing on hauntings), I want to respond to this:
What I was pondering here was why people decide that they've had a supernatural experience rather than try to figure out what actually happened.
On my old, defunct horrorblog, I wrote at length about my personal experience with a "haunting" here. (Please bear in mind I was writing for a very different audience than Sciencebloggers.)
Anyway, it's not so easy to explain as misinterpreting the odd sound in the night. There's a breakdown at the nexus of environment and perception that manifests as the experience of a fully fledged personality that is not there.
The rational money, IMO, is on environmental infrasound, although to this date almost all the evidence for the psychoacoustic and neurological effects of infrasound are purely anecdotal. And while I think infrasound may be a necessary part of the answer, I don't think it's sufficient. A lot of factors (psychological, sociological, environmental) have to come together.
Also, at the time I had my experience, infrasound was not on the rational radar even as a pure speculation. There was simply nothing there to investigate.
> Did they bring their prey up trees? Unlikely, since they
> were the top predator.
That means that nobody made a living by eating saber-tooths. It doesn't mean that there was nobody out there that wanted to steal their prey.
There were many predators that were big and nasty enough to drive a saber toothed cat or nimravid from its prey. Look at Brians splendid photograph of *Amphicyon*. Or think of arctodines. Or a pack of *Hemicyon*, *Pachycrocuta* or *Panthera artrox*.
Johannes, I missed your response, thanks. On savannas, scavengers note scent carried for long distances and vultures, usually arriving at the carcass after the main course has been served and consumed by the top predator (not always) which is then easily driven away because it has a satiated appetite and just wants to rest and digest, not do battle with hungry hyenas and other scavengers. Also the large predators tend to be thinly distributed except during the driest periods.
Compare that to a savanna fringe leopard where lion prides abound, the leopard quickly takes the whole carcass up into the tree before feeding, partly to remove the scent and visual clues and partly to reduce vulnerability to opportunists.
I think it is likely that semi-aquatic saber tooth cats killed their prey in the water, then dragged it to the shore and ate it's fill there, leaving remnants for semi-aquatic turtles, mustelids (mink, skunk), crawdads, decomposition. That's why at the La Brea tarpits many cat skeletons were found but few prey skeletons, I guess.
Funny that this topic should come up; I just did a presentation on hunting/scavenging strategies in African carnivores for my African Prehistory seminar. I agree with Johannes that there are other animals that could have driven sabercats off kills, especially if sabercats (even the "false" sabercat Dinofelis, if we're to be accurate) were solitary hunters like leopards. While I still have some more research to do, it seems that some African sabercats may have preferred a wooded habitat to the open savanna, in which case they may have been solitary hunters rather than forming cooperative social groups.
Also, given the presence of crocodiles in aquatic habitats (I hear tell of some new interesting evidence about croc predation on early hominids, even) I see no reason to view sabercats as semi-aquatic predators. We might see them as more fierce than they actually were, in fact, due to their large dentition, but I think a solitary Megantereon or Dinofelis would have yielded to a group of lions or hyenas. Whether they took prey into trees or not is another realm of speculation, although I have heard some ideas that Dinofelis was more leopard-like in its habits (but, like I said, this seems to be more speculative).
It should also be noted that leopards often start feeding on their prey when they initially haul them up into trees, usually starting with the meaty limbs. Lions can, if they choose, access such food in trees, and I have seen footage of leopards being chased out of trees by interested lions (although this is not a daily occurrence). Even if we are to return to sabercats, there's some taphonomic evidence that the cats often dismembered prey and carried the limbs back to a site for consumption away from competition, and I don't know of any hard evidence that they killed and fed prey on the margins of bodies of water (if you know of any papers, please cite them and I'll have a look).
Also, I don't think that the La Brea site can be equated to a "normal" hunting habitat; it was a death trap that appears to have been especially attractive to predators. Indeed, I do not think the La Brea site supports the idea of semi-aquatic sabercats, and this would be forgetting that dire wolves are even more abundant than sabercats at the La Brea site. In all it's hard for me to believe that sabercats were effective aquatic killers, and I don't see any aspects of their anatomy or taphonomy to support such a reconstruction.
On the whole "Cattle Mutilation" argument, I saw a very interesting documentary that detailed how the action of flies and maggots can absolutely decimate a carcass, draining it of blood and eating away organs very quickly after death, while simple scavengers often go for the eyes and tongue (exposed, soft parts of a body) first. This also explains many Chupacabra cases. And unfortunately, many examiners and plain folk aren't always inclined to see the difference between an animal attack and something "other".
I'd cite something, but I'm afraid ufology sites are clogging google's search engine. I believe it was on a NatGeo documentary though and if someone comes across it, it would be wonderful if they shared it.
While the questions may be leading, or the sampling biased (very likely), the sample size is plenty large enough to make "significant" claims about the population at large. In fact, given unbiased sampling, it's likely an order of magnitude larger than necessary. Anyone with a basic understanding of statistics shouldn't make that mistake.
I don't think it's shocking that so many people would believe in the paranormal. Actually, I find it nearly impossible to think that only a quarter of Americans believe in ESP when something closer to 80% believe in God. It seems that ESP would have a very high acceptance rate because movies and television set it up as the most "plausible" of supernatural phenomena, on which all other spooky things like psychics and prophetic dreams depend.
Furthermore, science fiction films and television programs often juxtapose ESP with advanced technology or superintelligent minds, conveying the message (even if false) that ESP represents a more "evolved" brain and has a realistic basis.
The reason why people believe in these things is easy: because it gives them evidence of life after death. The scientists running Skeptic magazine or debunking ghost stories for fun, saying there is no such thing as supernatural phenomena, are the exact same people who say there is no non-corporeal existence. When you're REALLY looking forward to an afterlife, you strive for whatever evidence you can get that supernatural events happen, and desperately want those scientists to be wrong. You would see the existence of ESP as evidence that the material world is not everything, making a non-material soul possible. Same with ghosts, psychics, tarot cards, or any other mystical device that presupposes a supernatural world. Modern astrology presupposes reincarnation, and so do "past life regressions."
We know that ANY person with a strong interest or desire in seeing something will be more likely to interpret data as supporting it, even if it doesn't. That's why the scientific method is so focused on separating expectations from results, with things like double-blind drug studies and peer review, but not every person uses the scientific method when figuring out why the door slammed shut or if that strange dream meant anything.
I also got this impression from a town-wide yard sale I visited a few months ago, lots of upper middle-class families selling various books about balancing body energies, detecting psychic waves, and similar topics.
On the good side, note that they are *selling* these books not keeping them ;)
So let me paraphrase your three paragraphs:
'People believe in ghosts. People are idiots.'
Do you intend to make a career like this?
I am skeptical of surveys such as this one because the questions asked are not provided and the answers of a very small number of people are being projected on a population many, many times larger. This doesn't mean that I don't "believe" random sampling or probability theory works, but to me all this survey reveals (as I stated) was that about a quarter of the people surveyed held on particular idea or another. Who knows what the results could be if a much larger sample were taken? What it comes down to is that I feel this is an estimate based upon a small sample and should not be touted as being "the rule" for the U.S. population.
It sounds to me like you're saying that you don't believe random sampling or probability theory work. You're right to worry about what questions were asked, but you're absolutely wrong to worry about the size of the population these results are being projected on. Regardless of the size of the population, if more than 30% of them would answer "yes" to this question, then the chances of getting a sample of 1000 people where at most 24% do is microscopic. Similarly, if fewer than 18% of them would answer "yes", then the chances of getting a sample of 1000 where at least 24% of them do is also microscopic.
The only worries you can legitimately have about a study like this are what was actually tested (that is, what question did they answer, and what other prompts did they get before answering that question) and how the sampling procedure worked (did they randomly dial 10 digit phone numbers, or balance the sample by region of the country, or stand in front of a fortune teller's booth and ask people walking by?)
The size of the sample relative to the population at large is irrelevant, and someone who wants to criticize other people for thinking uncritically should realize that.
It's Halloween. Are you a wet blanket all the time or is it just for spooky holidays?
I think the reason many people believe in ESP is that our brain is actually much better at processing information and coming to conclusions than we think. The two good books based on this idea are "Blink" and "Gift of Fear".
If you look at people from an anthropological perspective, it seems that we are inclined toward superstitious and spiritual beliefs as a species. To think that you are going to eradicate it from the species just because we've invented science seems as unrealistic as believing in spooks.
If you see an incident where a belief (whether it is in the supernatural, spiritual or scientific) is doing harm to someone then certainly point it out or try to help, otherwise what is the point?
Richard Wiseman has done quite a bit of research on hauntings, including some on infrasound. He studies WHY people are freaked out in certain instances. What makes places "spooky". See his web page with some citations. Download the Tandy article because its interesting.
I forgot the link...
Anyway, it's not so easy to explain as misinterpreting the odd sound in the night. There's a breakdown at the nexus of environment and perception that manifests as the experience of a fully fledged personality that is not there.