Almost one-third of Americans believe the ancient Mayan prediction of global calamity this December are “somewhat true,” according to a recent National Geographic poll. The prediction is based on a huge stone calendar wheel but exact nature of the disaster — already the subject of major motion picturesand fodder for a Super Bowl ad of remarkably black humor — is an open question. Perhaps an apocalypse will be sparked by expensive gasoline or another Charlie Sheen tantrum. Or maybe those early Mexicans just ran out of stone.
I’m a magician by profession, now retired and dedicated to communicating the facts about the so-called paranormal and the occult, and the supernatural people, claims, and stories that abound. My organization — The James Randi Educational Foundation — serves as a source of information about what I call “woo woo.” We work with a large number scientists, statisticians, and experts to evaluate and debunk for the benefit of the media, scientists, writers, students, and the merely curious.
Our efforts have brought JREF to the forefront of the world skeptical movement, following in the footsteps of Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Martin Gardner, Richard Feynman, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, and so many others — and I’m proud to say that I knew them all well.
We do this day in and day out. And humans aren’t born crazy. But somehow nonsense science has what seems like a permanent foothold in our culture.
Not all dissonance is perilous. The general public accepts some obviously false beliefs: whales are fish, we only use about 10% of our brains, “free energy” is just around the corner for us all.
Wrong, but not nuts.
Now consider this: Some 70% of Americans believe in some aspect of the paranormal — ESP, devils, ghosts, homeopathy, and spiritual healing. More than 25% believe there are humans who can “psychically” predict the future. About 20% believe it’s possible to talk to dead people (and that the dead talk back).
In other words, a sizable portion of the U.S. population accepts as a given that an unseen world of magical paranormal power exists, and all that remains is to discover how to take advantage of it. Some pay handsomely in that vain — I mean this in both senses of the word — pursuit.
Personality traits, psychological motivation, flawed cognition, emotional instability, local demographics, social influences — all these could contribute to what might be called Lack of Reason Syndrome. Let’s add as well: basic ignorance. But experimental psychology has yet to fully explain why essentially rational beings seem to need to be at least a little irrational.
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