Iowa Alumni Magazine | August 2011 | In Class

The Truth Is Out There

By Shelbi Thomas

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n uneasy feeling swept over Christopher Kelley as he took a nighttime drive through the secluded Ohio countryside. He felt as though someone—or something—watched him from the deep, dark woods. Later, when the UI sociology instructor pulled over to help a stranded motorcyclist, a large, hairy figure emerged from the shadows. Kelley shuddered as he stood toe-to-toe with Bigfoot.

“I saw a furry face for a split-second before I realized it was actually a motorcyclist with a full beard,” says Kelley, 08MA. “On a lonely road in the middle of nowhere, I should be afraid of bears. Maybe I’m primed for Bigfoot because of this class.”

Kelley teaches “Paranormal Society,” which explains social psychological theories and imparts critical evaluation skills by tapping into people’s fascination with the paranormal. As they explore why humans often use paranormal beliefs to explain the unexplainable, students learn to take a scientific approach in analyzing sensational claims ranging from alien abductions to the Loch Ness Monster.

Since the Age of Reason dawned in the 17th century, philosophers have predicted that society would trade mystical beliefs for rational thinking. Yet, in an ever-changing world that seems to offer more questions than answers, paranormal ideas remain more popular than ever. A 2005 Gallup survey found that three in four Americans believe in paranormal phenomena like extrasensory perception, telepathy, and ghosts. These views are reflected widely in our culture, from newspaper horoscopes to TV shows such as Ancient Aliens, Ghost Hunters, and Paranormal State.

Although new scientific discoveries seem to emerge every day, they do little to restore rational thinking. In fact, they may even make the paranormal more attractive. The rapid advance of technology in the last few decades has outpaced the comprehension of ordinary folk. The science behind everyday items like computers, microwaves, and cell phones seems mystifying—let alone the ability to splice genes or send satellites to Mars. No wonder, says Kelley, people cling to paranormal beliefs as a way to feel a sense of control over the uncertainty of modern life and to brace for the future.

Like much of the populace, most of Kelley’s students (mainly liberal arts majors) know little about science. So, their instructor spends the first two weeks bringing them up to speed with some fundamentals. He explains that scientific knowledge is based on fixed laws of nature that govern the universe and limit its possibilities: the law of gravity makes human levitation unlikely, while Newton’s second law of motion casts doubt on flying saucers.

In addition, science is founded on the observation of facts and the accumulation of knowledge; it requires theory and methodology, and it achieves a measure of prediction and controls. Scientists following these norms strive to share knowledge freely and openly, put aside personal biases, and allow ideas to be tested and subjected to evaluation.

Paranormal phenomena are events that—if true—would violate these physical principles and rigorously tested scientific precedents. Pseudo-scientists tend to focus on anomalies, and they value the quantity rather than quality of evidence that’s often anecdotal. To justify claims, they may use rejected scientific theories, defer to secret, mystical knowledge, or embrace scientific tools to appear credible, but apply them incorrectly.

Though ghost hunters use electromagnetic field (EMF) meters under the assumption that spirits disrupt EMFs, no scientific evidence exists for ghosts or their electromagnetic activity. In fact, EMF meters were designed to detect the strength of radiation from household fixtures like computers, televisions, and cell phones.

So, why do rational, intelligent people fall for claims about alien invasions, monsters lurking in lakes, and psychics who can foretell the future or wake the dead? Partly, it’s because of the human brain.

With the help of some classic psychological studies, Kelley shows his students how easily our brains can deceive us. In one videotaped experiment, two teams of people in black or white T-shirts throw a basketball around, while witnesses concentrate on counting the white team’s number of passes. With such a narrow focus, more than half of viewers fail to notice a person in a gorilla suit who strolls into the middle of the action.

Kelley says these experiments show that we need the tools of science to overcome the normal ways our perception can be distorted—what 17th century English scientist Sir Francis Bacon termed “the idols of the mind.” Uncomfortable with mysteries, the brain may look for patterns where they don’t exist or seek irrational explanations for events. The scientific method offers a detached perspective to check whether these theories are based in reality or myth.

Once students understand the basics of science, Kelley asks them to analyze some real-life paranormal claims. They use astronomer Carl Sagan’s “baloney detection kit” to test everything from faith healers to sightings of the Virgin Mary on grilled cheese sandwiches. The kit includes tips to properly weigh evidence and test claims; a list of common logical fallacies, such as ad populum (“if everyone believes it, it must be true”) and circular reasoning (“we don’t have strong evidence of aliens, because they’re clever enough to hide the evidence”); and the theory of Occam’s razor, which states that the simplest explanation is usually the most reliable.

“People have been selling snake oil under different names for thousands of years,” says Kelley, “but extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.”

Of course, true believers in the paranormal don’t need proof, only faith. “A man with conviction is a hard man to change,” renowned former UI psychologist Leon Festinger [deceased], 40MA, 42PhD, once said. “Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”

Festinger discovered this firsthand during a famous 1950s psychological case study of the Seekers, a doomsday cult that believed aliens would rescue them from Earth’s impending destruction. Many people thought the Seekers would abandon their views after the prophesized judgment day passed without incident. Instead, rationalizing that their faith had saved the world, they became more convinced than ever. More recently, followers of the radio minister Harold Camping sold their possessions and quit their jobs, believing the world would end this past May. When Camping’s prediction proved to be untrue, he simply set a new date—this October.

As Festinger’s study and Camping’s behavior showed, it’s easier to justify what we already believe than to question the ideas central to our lives. Recent breakthroughs in psychology and neuroscience reveal the strong role that beliefs play in personal identity. Faced with ideas that contradict their own or threaten their sense of self, people adapt the same “flight or fight” reflexes designed to avoid physical danger to push away hostile data and cling to comforting beliefs.

Though Kelley helps the class avoid such tricks of the mind, students ultimately decide what to make of their newfound knowledge.

A 2006 Skeptical Inquirer study suggests that a college education doesn’t stifle paranormal thought; in fact, seniors and grad students polled by the magazine were more likely than freshmen to believe in haunted houses, telepathy, and spirit channeling. A poll of Kelley’s class found that more than half believed in paranormal phenomena. “I think there are still things in the world that science hasn’t defined or proven yet,” says senior Nicholas Carino-Marek. “I think aliens exist, and it’s näive for us to think that we are the only life in the universe. However, I don’t think aliens have come here and abducted people or created crop circles.”

Kelley urges “Paranormal Society” students to consult the scientific method rather than their horoscope in making everyday decisions. He says the objective approach taught in his class helps students practically evaluate their options on everything from a roommate to a career. It also encourages them to re-examine their long-held views.

He readily acknowledges that science may not be able to answer some of life’s greatest mysteries—such as the existence of God and the afterlife. But, it can help students balance their instincts with informed judgment. This new way of thinking doesn’t eliminate the possibility of the supernatural: it only requires reasonable evidence.

“Being skeptical isn’t being close-minded,” says Carino-Marek. “It’s actually being open-minded to the idea that other explanations exist.” In other words, the truth is out there.