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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Do 90% of Americans Believe in the Paranormal?

There is a new survey by Chapman University that claims to have determined that roughly half of Americans believe in the paranormal. The study reaches the claim that “half of Americans do believe in something paranormal.” But the methodology used to reach this claim is very faulty, and a strong case can be made that up to 90% or more of Americans believe in the paranormal (although much fewer might answer “Yes” if asked if they believe in the paranormal).

To try to determine how many people believe in the paranormal, the survey asked the respondents whether they believed in any of the seven items listed below. The percentages are the fraction that answered “Agree or strongly agree.”
 
Places can be haunted by spirits 41.4%
The living and dead can communicate with each other 26.5%
Dreams foretell the future 20.9%
Aliens visited Earth in our ancient past. 20.3%
Aliens have come to Earth in modern times. 18.1%
Astrologers, fortune tellers, and psychics can foresee the future. 13.9%
Bigfoot is a real creature 11.4%

Apparently their thinking was: just add up how many people expressed belief in at least one of these seven things, and that gives you how many Americans believe in the paranormal. But it makes little sense to try to deduce what fraction of Americans believe in the paranormal from such a limited list of questions. The questions cover only a small fraction of the phenomena that can be considered paranormal. Also, the wording of some of the questions is poor. For example, “Dreams can sometimes foretell the future” would have got a higher response rate than “Dreams foretell the future.”

That raises the question: what do we mean by paranormal? When you type “definition of paranormal” in Google.com, you can get a definition that isn't too bad, but which gives particular examples that should not be included in a definition: “Denoting events or phenomena such as telekinesis or clairvoyance that are beyond the scope of normal scientific understanding.” Telekinesis is one of the more poorly substantiated paranormal phenomena, so if you go asking people, in effect, if you believe in “stuff like telekinesis,” the great majority of people will say no. A skeptic might want to use such a definition, in hopes of getting some survey result saying that most people don't believe in the paranormal; but using that definition wouldn't be fair.

A better definition of paranormal is found at www.meriam-webster.com: “Very strange and not able to be explained by what scientists know about nature and the world.” This is a good broad definition that doesn't “poison the well” by mentioning particular beliefs. How many Americans believe in the paranormal, using this broad definition?

To answer that, we would have to ask many more questions than just the seven asked by the Chapman University survey. We would also have to ask about belief in ESP, belief in paranormal premonitions, belief in faith healing, belief that you can sometimes get what you want through intercessory prayer, belief in reincarnation, belief in demon possession, belief in any type of miracles reported in the Bible, and a large variety of other phenomena that qualify as “very strange and not able to be explained by what scientists know about nature and the world.”

I may note that there is no sound intellectual basis for saying that alleged phenomena such as ESP or UFOs should be considered paranormal but alleged phenomena such as biblical miracles or faith healing should not be considered paranormal, on the grounds that the latter beliefs have been around for so long that they are not “very strange” ideas. When talking about what is “very strange” here, we simply mean outside of what scientists can explain through scientific theory. From that standpoint, the idea that a human's prayers might be answered by God (or that God may have performed a miracle) is every bit as paranormal as items such as ESP or UFOs. 
 
So if we did in the right way our survey designed to find out how many Americans believe in the paranormal, it might look a little like this:

Do you believe:
Places can be haunted by spirits. Yes __ No __
The living and dead can communicate with each other. Yes __ No __
Dreams can sometimes foretell the future. Yes __ No __
Aliens visited Earth in our ancient past. Yes __ No __
Aliens have come to Earth in modern times. Yes __ No __
Some psychics can foresee the future. Yes __ No __
Bigfoot is a real creature. Yes __ No __
Humans can sometimes communicate through ESP. Yes __ No __
Photos can show strange things science cannot explain. Yes __ No __
Miracles were performed long ago. Yes __ No __
Faith healing sometimes produces dramatic healing. Yes __ No __
You can ask God for special favors, and have your prayers answered. Yes __ No __
There are special healers who can heal without using medicine. Yes __ No __
Some writers have written words that God sent to them. Yes __ No __
Miracles are sometimes performed in modern times. Yes __ No __
Some people get paranormal premonitions of disaster. Yes __ No __
Reincarnation sometimes occurs. Yes __ No __


Given a survey like this, I imagine that 80% or more of the American public would answer “Yes” to one of these questions. So it would seem that we should say that at least 80 percent of the American people believe in the paranormal.

But even a survey like the one above would not be complete. We should add at least one other paranormal item – one that is in the current canon of mainstream scientific thought.

I refer to the Big Bang. The Big Bang theory holds that our entire universe began in an infinitely dense point called the primordial singularity. This idea definitely does meet our definition of paranormal, which was: “very strange and not able to be explained by what scientists know about nature and the world.” Scientists have no explanation for the Big Bang, which is a total mystery. There are a few speculative ideas floating about as to the cause of the Big Bang, but no such speculation has gained general acceptance. I may note that the super-speculative idea of the universe beginning as a vacuum fluctuation has no actual support from anything scientists have ever observed, because no scientist has ever observed any visible object appearing as a result of a vacuum fluctuation, not even an object as big as a grain of sand. 

The Big Bang: It doesn't get more paranormal than this
 
The Big Bang is really the epitome of the paranormal – a totally strange, unexplained event observed only once. It would not be as paranormal if we were to observe an entire galaxy instantly popping into existence, or an entire planet instantly popping into existence.

So we should add this last line to our survey designed to find the percentage of Americans who believe in the paranormal:

Do you believe:
Places can be haunted by spirits. Yes __ No __
The living and dead can communicate with each other. Yes __ No __
Dreams can sometimes foretell the future. Yes __ No __
Aliens visited Earth in our ancient past. Yes __ No __
Aliens have come to Earth in modern times. Yes __ No __
Some psychics can foresee the future. Yes __ No __
Bigfoot is a real creature. Yes __ No __
Humans can sometimes communicate through ESP. Yes __ No __
Photos sometimes show strange things science cannot explain. Yes __ No __
Miracles were performed long ago. Yes __ No __
Faith healing sometimes produces dramatic healing. Yes __ No __
You can ask God for special favors, and have your prayers answered. Yes __ No __
There are special healers who can heal without using medicine. Yes __ No __
Some writers have written words that God sent to them. Yes __ No __
Miracles are sometimes performed in modern times. Yes __ No __
Some people get paranormal premonitions of disaster. Yes __ No __
Reincarnation sometimes occurs. Yes __ No __
Universe suddenly began in infinitely dense point (Big Bang) Yes __ No __

With the addition of this last line, we finally have a fairly complete survey designed to find out whether the respondent holds any paranormal beliefs, defined as “very strange and not able to be explained by what scientists know about nature and the world.” With the addition of this last line, the percentage of respondents answering at least one “Yes” answer would probably exceed 90%.

In short, a strong case can be made that 90% or more of Americans believe in the paranormal, in the sense of having a belief in at least one thing that is “very strange and not able to be explained by what scientists know about nature and the world.” I may note that a large fraction of Americans that say they don't believe in the paranormal will actually find that they do believe in at least one paranormal thing, if they do a complete inventory of their beliefs, and ask themselves whether at least one of these beliefs is a belief in something “very strange and not able to be explained by what scientists know about nature and the world.”