The last way 

for skeptics to 

get the attention 

of bright, curious,

intelligent people 

is to belittle or 

condescend or to 

show arrogance 

to their beliefs.



The Psychology of Belief
Seattle, Sagan, and Psychology
 By Jeanine DeNoma 

The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) held its annual convention in Seattle this June. The following are observations of one of the two O4R members who attended.

Does our evolutionary history predispose us to irrational beliefs? Probably so, according to James Alcock, CSICOP fellow and psychology professor at York University. "Learning is tied to the physical architecture of the nervous system which condemns us to magical thinking," said Alcock. Evolution has selected for brains which interpret two events occurring close in time as being linked. To accurately evaluate whether two concurrent events are connected requires us to consider all the times the two events have occurred independently of one another, but our brains do not register nonevents. For example said Alcock, "Right now you are not thinking that you are not sitting on a tack." This makes our learning asymmetrical: A child who is burned after touching a hot stove will not unlearn that lesson by touching the stove when it is cold.

     Like learning, what we see is affected by the structure of our neural system as well as our unconscious higher-level processing. Jerry Andrus, magician and member of Oregonians for Rationality, used several optical illusions of his own invention to demonstrate the quirks of our visual system. "If I look outside at my car, how do I know someone hasn't cut my car in half and carried off the backside, which I can't see," said Andrus, pointing out the assumptions we make about what we see. Magicians fool us, not because we are dumb, but because we know how the world works, insisted Andrus.

     Another task nature has equipped humans to do well is to see patterns. We see patterns so well that we see them when they aren't even there. Barry Beyerstein, physiological psychologist from Simon Fraser University, demonstrated how our pattern recognition abilities form the basis for sympathetic magic used in character reading systems such as astrology, graphology and palm reading. People are taken in because these systems seem to work. "People make sense of vague statements which they think apply to themselves by unconsciously reading in specifics from their own prior knowledge that are not contained in the sketch," said Beyerstein. When you organize your thoughts around yourself as you receive the information the "reading" seems to fit. If, on the other hand, you don't have a context into which to place this vague information, it does not make sense.

     Describing her 15 years of research on memory distortion, Elizabeth Loftus, psychology professor at the University of Washington, demonstrated how easily media coverage, leading questions or overheard conversation will lead people to incorporate distorting information into their memory of an event. She then went on to describe how her research team created an entirely false memory in a 15 year-old subject.

     According to Beyerstein, our cerebral center for interpreting information does not distinguish sensory information from memory. Incoming sensory information normally gets priority, but if sensory input decreases, higher-level processing is impaired or "the saliency of internal input" increases, this center fills in with internal information (usually from memory) thus causing hallucinations.

     What happens within the nervous system when it begins to shutdown as an individual approaches death? Near-death experiences are consistent across cultures and are probably the result of physiological events in the brain said Susan Blackmore, psychologist, author and CSICOP Fellow. As we approach death, endorphins, the morphine-like neurotransmitters which produce pleasure, are released. Endorphins produce random firing of the neurons in the brain. The high density of cells at the center of our visual system, when firing randomly, appear as light at the center of our visual field, fading away at the periphery. These firings create the illusion of motion and are interpreted as traveling through a tunnel towards a light.

     Out-of-body experiences, Blackmore hypothesized, occur when our sense of self becomes weakened. No longer able to construct an eye-level view of ourself, our brain constructs "a simplistic birds-eye view." When our sense of self disappears altogether it is replaced with feelings of lightness, timelessness and the absence of physical boundaries, similar to mystical experiences sometimes obtained through years of meditation.

     While the physical world may give us accurate feedback on reality, our social environment doesn't necessarily, said Alcock. This is especially true when fallacious beliefs are shared by a group. And, false beliefs may work better than real ones, for example, a belief in heaven.

     Skeptics find many pseudoscientific claims laughable: The woman who sued her doctor and hospital claiming a CAT scan had destroyed her psychic powers, or individuals claiming to have been abducted by aliens. Often we don't appreciate the seriousness of such beliefs. But irrationality has its costs culturally, financially and in the daily lives of individuals. Timothy Moore, psychologist and an expert witness at the Judas Priest trial, described how culturally held myths of subliminal perception, as propagated by the media, affected the judge's ruling.

     The tragic consequences of irrationality were heard throughout the Seattle conference, but none were more poignant than those reported in the session on "recovered memory" techniques used by therapists and police interrogators. Richard Ofshe, sociology professor from the University of California at Berkeley, described how, under this discredited therapy technique, individuals come to "remember" events which never occurred. Ofshe described a case where police convinced an innocent man he had committed a murder. Generally the "recovered memory" is an event which supposedly went on for years, yet of which the individual has no recollection. Susceptibility to these techniques, Ofshe said, is not dependent upon being psychopathic, but is the result of the process itself.

     The media and other cultural gatekeepers keep the populace mired in pseudoscience said Carl Sagan, professor of astronomy at Comell University and keynote speaker for the conference. Sagan blamed the prevalence of irrational beliefs on a society which makes science inaccessible to most people. Sagan urged skeptics to acknowledge that the roots of superstition lie in human nature, that society does not teach critical thinking well, and that powerful forces have a vested interest in not teaching critical thinking.

     Science does not provide everything. People may yearn for contact with dead loved ones. Many, many individuals in our society have been abused and these cases have not been fabricated by therapists. "People are not stupid. They believe things for reasons," said Sagan. "The last way for skeptics to get the attention of bright, curious, intelligent people is to belittle or condescend or to show arrogance to their beliefs," he said. If we have compassion, we will be much more likely to advance scientific thinking.

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