Thursday, January 24, 2013

College Students Mired in Paranormal Beliefs?

The Skeptical Inquirer issue from Jan./Feb. 2006 contains some astounding data based on surveys and statistical research into the prevalence of paranormal beliefs (e.g. astrology, ESP, haunted houses, demons and demonic possession, ghosts, clairvoyance and communication with the dead).

One of their perhaps not so surprising findings was that Americans lead the believer list along with residents of The Czech Republic and Bulgaria. For example, 54% of Americans were found to believe in psychics, 42% in haunted houses, and 41% in demonic possession and demons.These percentages are similar to those in the two aforementioned countries.

This defies comprehension in ordinary contexts, to the extent of inviting cognitive dissonance. In other words, how can arguably the most advanced technological nation on the planet, which only months ago succeeded in landing a sophisticated craft (Curiosity) on Mars, have so many citizens who also accept demon possession and that “demons” actually exist? It boggles the mind, but the authors of the article give some reasons, most of which are based on earlier data-findings.

Among the primary contributors to this dismal picture:

1) The media enables this baloney! All too often TV hosts or shows bring on a bandwagon of nuts, and never challenge them. You will see, for example, the authors of the ‘Left Behind’ series being interviewed but their stupid beliefs, e.g. in the “rapture” or “demons” or “the Antichrist” are never seriously challenged. In an earlier blog, recall I referenced Charles Pierce’s work on how the media enables religious crappola in general, e.g.

It can then be argued that the hyper-religiosity already pervasive in the country has sown the fertile soil for all manner of whacky beliefs across the paranormal spectrum. After all, if one can believe in clairvoyance or haunted houses it’s but a small step to believe in living demons or demonic possession.

2) Errors in human cognition. Many of these I’ve discussed before in terms of brain architecture and how certain brain regions (e.g. OAA) can distort reality and incept peculiar beliefs. It has been found in line with this that people often selectively confirm their supporting biases. (E.g. Moony, C: Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 27, No. 6, p. 35) For example, a fundie who already believes in the Armageddon nonsense, will see any attacks on Israel, or the rise of someone he doesn’t like (e.g. Obama) as confirming his ignorant beliefs. Add in assorted major earthquakes, storms etc. and ‘Voila!’ you have the “signs of the end times”! Never mind that 12-15 major earthquakes occur each year on our planet, and powerful storms are always possible – especially now with global warming ramping up.

3) Lower Intelligence, I.Q. scores. This factor can’t be discounted. Killeen and Wildman ( ‘Superstitiousness and Intelligence’ in Psychological Reports, 1974, Vol. 46, pp. 479-82) found that high school students with higher I.Q. score were less superstitious than students with lower I.Q. scores. They were less likely to believe in haunted houses, ghosts, demons and ESP. Meanwhile, Messer and Griggs (‘Teaching of Psychology’, 1989, Vol. 16, p. 187)found that as paranormal beliefs increased, grades decreased.

This brings us to higher education which one might expect would dampen down such tendencies by virtue of encouraging critical thinking, deeper analyses. However, the evidence is not inspiring. The Skeptical Inquirer piece notes Sweden’s Lund University had just appointed professorships in parapsychology, hypnology and clairvoyance. Meanwhile, Edinburgh University in Scotland and Utrecht University in The Netherlands already have established chairs in parapsychology.

What about the students? The article notes that a comprehensive 2001 survey revealed college educated young people are more likely to believe in haunted houses, witches, ghosts and clairvoyance than older Americans. On the good side, they were less likely to believe in demons or demonic possession than older ‘Muricans. But this is generally in line with another finding that belief in demonic possession, demons, ghosts, channelling and  (horological) astrology increases as educational level decreases.

In general then, the dumbest and least educated people will be more likely to believe the most far out nonsense. But, there is a spike in nonsensical belief for certain college –level Americans. By assessing for different “paranormal dimensions” , e.g. ESP, demons, channeling, clairvoyance, telepathy, spiritual healing, astrology, the survey researchers gauged degree of belief based on college year level. Their findings were interesting, in terms of the college year vs. percentage of believers:

Freshmen (23%)

Sophomores (26%)

Juniors (27%)

Seniors (31%)

Graduate students (34%)

A pertinent question is why does the percentage of believers increase as the college level increases. As the survey authors put it:

“Our results reveal a distinct pattern regarding educational level: As educational level increases, belief across all thirteen paranormal dimensions increases”.

The good news? The participants in the survey were decidedly more skeptical of certain areas, including: demons, demonic possession, ghosts, witches, clairvoyance, haunted houses and spiritual healing. This suggests that certain “paranormal” dimensions were not really considered paranormal by the college students, and this reverse skepticism increases as college level increased. This may well explain why the percentage of believers increases as educational level increases. For example, included among the paranormal dimensions were: that extraterrestrial beings have visited Earth, reincarnation, ESP and astrology. Arguably then, a preponderance of students may have been less convinced of the dubious nature of any of these than say, demons, demonic possession.

ET visitations might not be regarded as so preposterous in the context that advanced students may have considered that humans – a puny species if ever there was one- have managed to send craft (Voyager I, II) out of the solar system, so there may well have been other advanced beings who landed on our planet in the distant past. It is certainly more believable than demons!

Meanwhile, ESP may not be that difficult to accept given many students may already have been aware that Duke University actually sponsored experiments in this under J.B. Rhine. More than a few students may be also be familiar with the experiments of Dr. Robert G. Jahn showing how student participants could (telekinetically) disturb random number generators on computers, as published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration. As for astrology, that has been on college campuses since the year dot. College kids since I’ve gone to school have exchanged their “Sun signs” and often used that as a basis to assess whether one is “compatible” or not. I am not saying astrology is “true” or acceptable, only that its very endurance in the college environment may have engendered its acceptance among disproportionate numbers of college students.

One saving grace in the findings was that those students enrolled as physical or biological science majors were numbered amongst the least likely to believe across all paranormal areas. Those enrolled in Education and Social Science featured the highest proportions of believers (29% and 31% respectively). Business Administration students were also close to science students in degree of skepticism, though their sample numbers were relatively small.

Perhaps in future, a more comprehensive survey- analysis might be carried out, eliminating "borderline" paranormal dimensions and sticking to the over the top beliefs  - like ghosts, haunted houses, channelling and demons-demon possession. We might then be able to extract much more signal from the noise!

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