In middle school, I used to stay up late and listen to a radio talk show called Coast to Coast AM. The show dealt with many topics, focusing on the supernatural or paranormal. While occasional talks were on real science (they brought on Michio Kaku as a guest), the vast majority consisted of things like psychic powers, auras, numerology, UFOs, alien abductions, crop circles, Bigfoot, astrology, conspiracy theories, the Illuminati, the New World Order, collective consciousness, spoon bending, ghosts, near-death experiences, quantum healing, astral projection, clairvoyance, and other wacky phenomena.
Of course, I have no problem with the expression of unpopular views, and I have written several times in support of their expression. It’s not like Coast to Coast AM is being promoted in the school curriculum, at which point I would take issue. However, this particular category of beliefs, namely superstition, is generally harmful because it promotes thinking in a highly irrational and naive way. Especially in the social media age, we cannot afford as a society to succumb to believing in whatever pops up on our newsfeeds.
But surely this is just a tiny minority of people, right? This is the typical response I get when I speak out against superstition, and it seems sensible because I usually talk about this with highly educated people who automatically dismiss this kind of stuff. However, the numbers for the general populace may be discouraging. From a December 2013 Harris poll (the link is broken so here is a Google cache link), the numbers believing were: 42% in ghosts, 36% in UFOs, 29% in astrology, 26% in witches, and 24% in reincarnation. This is not including religious-based superstitious beliefs, with much higher numbers such as 72% in miracles, 68% in angels, 58% in the devil, and 57% in the virgin birth.
I would usually criticize religion more than superstition, but in this post I make an exception. Even as religious belief is on the decline (see numbers in the Harris poll or also in a Pew Research poll), superstition is on the rise. According to the Harris poll, only 24% of matures (68+) believe in ghosts, but 44% of echo boomers (18-36) do. Astrology increases from 23% to 33%, and witches increase from 18% to 27%, when you go from the oldest to the youngest generation.
The Role of Evidence
Every belief mentioned in the previous section shares something in common: there is zero credible evidence supporting them. Of course, those who believe such things often think they have evidence, and this is almost always explained by confirmation bias, selection bias, or being simply misled. Only when you get to some forms of religious belief do you run into people who claim they do not need evidence at all (“I don’t need evidence, I have faith”). Fortunately, when debating superstitious people as opposed to religious people, you at least agree that you need evidence, but might differ as to what constitutes evidence. (A conspiracy theorist will shower you with evidence.)
In the paranormal, it is especially easy to construct signal out of noise, or beliefs out of nothingness. Take something like astrology: Someone writes an extremely vague, all-encompassing description of life, and it generally matches anyone. The reason it seems to fit you specifically is that the vague wording (“something important recently happened in your life”) triggers several biases:
- you are selectively looking for things that fit the description (selection bias),
- you ignore things that don’t fit (confirmation bias),
- you find something that you didn’t originally view as important, but now it must be important because of the prediction (circular reasoning), and
- you note the importance of something long after the fact (hindsight bias).
The rational person is not immune to biases, but at least is aware of them and tries to look at evidence from a more objective perspective. After all, systematic analysis of evidence is the main criterion that separates real science from pseudo science.
A Priori Dismissal
Suppose you read a story in the news today about a new Bigfoot sighting. How much evidence would you need to dismiss it? I would claim it is almost none. You would realize the probability of the existence of Bigfoot is so low in the first place (well under 1%, possibly 0%), that it would take a significant amount of evidence to convince you otherwise. The burden of proof is on the sighter. Given the advent of universal smartphone ownership, it would seem easy to simply snap a picture of Bigfoot when you saw one. In this case, you do not need evidence against to dismiss it.
The point is, if a Bigfoot article appeared in the news today, then without reading any of it and without having any evidence of its being a hoax, you could safely dismiss it as a hoax, as it has been every time. Again, I am not saying that every person who has sighted Bigfoot did so to perpetuate a hoax—I think some people genuinely saw something they personally couldn’t explain. However, there’s quite a leap of logic to go from “I don’t know what I saw” to “It was Bigfoot.”
Imagine that you find the following title in today’s paper: “Scientists find conclusive proof of Flat Earth theory.” Without having to be a scientist yourself, you have enough intelligence (hopefully) to conclude that the article is wrong, even without reading a word of it.
Some friends I talk to have actually pointed out that I am perhaps too dismissive. For instance, last year this Carrie promo video made its rounds on Youtube:
If you don’t want to watch it, basically a hoax is set up so that someone appears to be using telekinetic powers in a cafe, and onlookers are fearful and in a state of shock.
We discussed what we would have done in that situation. Everyone else said they would have been scared !@#&less in that scenario, but I said I would have known it was a hoax and thus have stayed calm. Of course, nobody believed me. Given this post, judge for yourself.
“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
This philosophical tool allows you to dismiss many kinds of statements. If someone just claims, “There is a leprechaun in my backyard,” you can dismiss it even if you have never met this person before and have never been to their backyard.
Hitchens’ Razor differs slightly from the idea in the previous section: the aversion to believing in Bigfoot, even if there is “evidence” in the form of extremely shaky and blurry cam, comes more from statistical improbability than from philosophical concern. Christopher Hitchens’ statement applies more to abstract claims that sometimes cannot be justified in the physical world, i.e. religious claims.
The title refers to both interpretations of “without evidence”: dismissing something that has no evidence for, and dismissing something that has no evidence against. Namely, if there is no evidence for, you do not need evidence against.
More relevant to purely superstitious claims that can be tested is Carl Sagan’s “razor”:
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
It is generally true in real life that the more absurd a claim is, the more justification it requires. If you claim the Malaysian flight 370 is on Mars, you better have some very convincing pieces of evidence supporting it.
Overall, I just ask that we think more rationally, especially in response to the media and to questionable stories. We simply cannot afford to slip back into an age of superstition.