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Pseudoscience In America Is On The Rise

The Deseret News is an online and print newspaper based out of Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. (Salt Lake City is the epicenter of Mormon seismic activity that occurs on our planet.)

In last Thursday’s online newspaper, they published this article in their ‘World and nation’ (sic) section. It reads in full:

The number: 18% — Have experienced ghosts

Pew Research Center

Published: Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010 9:51 p.m. MST

Nearly one-in-five American adults (18%) say they have seen or been in the presence of ghosts. Among Christians, the proportion is essentially identical (17%), a Pew Forum survey finds. Even more among the U.S. public (29%), including an identical proportion of Christians, say they have felt in touch with someone who has already died. The number of Americans who see dead people has doubled over the past decade. Just 9% said they had interacted with a ghost in 1996, compared with 18% today. The number saying they have felt in touch with someone who has died has also grown considerably, from 18% in 1996 to 29% today.

It is important to note that this is specifically ‘The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’ survey. PFRPL is one of seven “projects” that the Pew Research Foundation devotes to polling questions that fall under the categories of religion, spirituality, and magical thinking – quite appropriate bedfellows.

I’ll forgive The Deseret News the incorrect attribute to the more general (and less evangelical-sounding) ‘Pew Research Center’. I’ll chalk it up to poor editing (evident by the capitalization problems and failure to link to the source.)

Getting past all that and to the heart of the results, the first line of the article reminds me of my first conversation I had with Steve Novella and Perry DeAngelis concerning skepticism. I had asked them if there was a direct proportion to the number of people who believe in the supernatural as there are people who believe in a god. So now when I read that 18% of American adults and 17% of Christians have seen a ghost, I am reminded back to those first few hours of understanding what it meant to be a skeptic.

Down further, the next line is disturbing. People who see the dead have DOUBLED in 10 years. This is terrible news. Edwards, Browne, Van Praagh, and the countless others that wield cold reading like a club against the heads of the gullible masses must be assigned blame. The biggest accessories to this crime against human dignity are King and Winfrey. As a whole, television media – all the broadcast and cable news channels – deserve to be chastised. (Such is the business of ‘ratings’.) Religious evangelists who make a living by yelling at people over the airwaves can almost go without mentioning.

Here is the link to the entire study from the PFRPL. From the first paragraph of the report:

“…large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions. Many say they attend worship services of more than one faith or denomination — even when they are not traveling or going to special events like weddings and funerals. Many also blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects. And sizeable minorities of all major U.S. religious groups say they have experienced supernatural phenomena, such as being in touch with the dead or with ghosts.”

Here’s more of the same data:

“24% of the public overall and 22% of Christians say they believe in reincarnation — that people will be reborn in this world again and again. And similar numbers (25% of the public overall, 23% of Christians) believe in astrology. Nearly three-in-ten Americans say they have felt in touch with someone who has already died, almost one-in-five say they have seen or been in the presence of ghosts, and 15% have consulted a fortuneteller or a psychic.”

Is it any wonder that these numbers mirror each other so closely?

Some more data about nonsense to digest:

“Roughly one-quarter of adults express belief in tenets of certain Eastern religions; 24% say they believe in reincarnation (that people will be reborn in this world again and again), and a similar number (23%) believe in yoga not just as exercise but as a spiritual practice. Similar numbers profess belief in elements of New Age spirituality, with 26% saying they believe in spiritual energy located in physical things such as mountains, trees or crystals, and 25% professing belief in astrology (that the position of the stars and planets can affect people’s lives). Fewer people (16%) believe in the “evil eye” or that certain people can cast curses or spells that cause bad things to happen to someone.”

Here is where people’s ignorance of basic science becomes amplified. People embrace pseudoscience in exact proportion to their misunderstanding of actual science. How is it that one out of every four American adults believes in the spiritual energy of crystals and mountains? You could almost understand how someone might think that a tree (or any other organic material) might harness some kind of “energy”, but when it comes to totally inorganic things like crystals, it becomes the equivalent of believing that my daughter’s plastic Barbie doll has a soul. American adults should know better. Shame.

I like how they broke down the demographics from that part of the survey. A few tidbits that struck my attention:

– Hispanics believe in these pseudoscientific notions more than Blacks or Whites.

– More Whites than Blacks believe in “spiritual energy”.

– Those ages 65 and over believe in these things less than any of the other age groups.

– Liberals, by about a 2 to 1 margin, believe more in these things than do Conservatives.

And some more interesting tidbits further down include:

– 41% of Blacks claim they have contacted the dead (as opposed to 29% of Whites and 30% of Hispanics.)

– 17% of college graduates claim a supernatural experience with a fortune teller (as opposed to 13% of high school graduates!)

– 49% of people claim to have had some kind of religious or mystical experience (as opposed to 22% back in 1962.)

This polling information is, all at once, fascinating and sobering. It is healthy to remind ourselves that there are large chunks of Americans today that hold fast to some of the most unscientific and fanciful notions ever concocted by mankind. It is important to recognize the demographics of such beliefs so the skeptical community can measure their efforts proportional to the data.

Perhaps most importantly, it shows us that some of these ideas are actually growing in the American culture, especially over the past decade. Despite the great advancements the skeptical community has made in the past ten years, we can never be content or rest on our laurels.

Pseudoscience in America is on the rise.

4 comments to Pseudoscience In America Is On The Rise

  • Brian the Coyote

    I see the dead several times a week. They’re called the Toronto Maple Leafs.

    Kidding aside, I find it interesting that more people are taking the “buffet approach” to religion; mixing and matching beliefs and practices as they see fit. It’s something I’ve noticed on the rise too. Just makes you wonder who was created in who’s image?

    It all fits in with people who proudly categories themselves as “spiritual” as opposed to being “religious”. I’ve always taken that distinction to mean, “I like the comfort of believing in a god but don’t want to have to play by his rules.”

    Patton Oswalt is right: Sky Cake is delicious and Americans need to go on a diet.

  • John Draeger

    Wow, this is sobering indeed. Seems to me that teaching children critical thinking skills from a young age is what’s necessary to bring about real societal change.

    Could it be that the rise in false beliefs reflected in the survey reflects that more pseudoscience is available via the TV and internet nowadays? People seem to be scoring higher on intelligence tests over time, so this increase in pseudoscientific beliefs is puzzling.

    Some scientific skeptics seem to prefer taking on one bogus claim at a time. Others try to snuff out multiple false beliefs all at once–like Richard Dawkins has done with “The God Delusion.” I’m beginning to think that Dawkins’ approach is better, although not everyone is prepared for the conflict that ensues with that approach.

    I once pressed a New Age believer in “spiritual energy” for a more precise description of the energy. What I got was indistinguishable from the scientific description of infrared radiation. Asking questions of people that believe in nonsense is a good way to get them to face the facts. They rarely seek to answer such questions on their own. It seems to work better than just telling them they are mistaken or wrong. Few people even read carefully the text that is the basis for their religious belief–they just believe it’s all good and has no conflicts with objective scientific reality. Or, they do mental gymnastics to rationalize the conflicts that they find.

    What’s needed, I think, is more prevention. I was taught nonsense as a kid and it took me about 35 years to get it out of my brain! I appear to be the exception to the rule. Once people get a belief in their head they tend to stick with it the rest of their life (religion, politics, brand loyalty, even food preference).

    If we are going to make a dent in the pervasive false beliefs in our society we need to do something radical. It makes sense to me to go after the beliefs on which many other false beliefs depend: gods, afterlife, souls/spirits. We will always have some superstitious beliefs due to the nature of the way the human brain has evolved. But belief in a lucky shirt for playing baseball is not nearly as damaging to society as are the false beliefs that are spread from generation to generation. Those religious memes that indoctrinate young people should be the focus of scientific skepticism in my humble opinion.

  • the three edged sword

    “Is it any wonder that these numbers mirror each other so closely?”

    I’m curious about your implied comparison between religious beliefs and New Agey beliefs. Are you saying that this data shows belief in Christianity predisposes people to other supernatural beliefs?

    If the rate of belief in astrology among Christians is the same as the rate in the general population, wouldn’t that show that the two are more or less independent? Or am I missing your point?

  • Smed

    I agree with the above comment. I think you’re misunderstanding the survey results. For 18% of Americans to have seen ghosts and 17% of Christians to have seen ghosts, would mean that the two groups are very similar. It sounds like you’re interpreting the results as 17 of the 18% are Christians.

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