Ghosts. Psychic phenomena. Mysterious rites conducted by the light of a full moon. Is the Central Valley the epicenter of ectoplasmic activity? Could our hometown, like Sunnydale, be situated on its own “Hellmouth”? Or are these claims a symptom of a more general malaise? It’s been nearly a decade since the finale of The X-Files, but like Fox Mulder, many still “want to believe” in the paranormal, and such phenomena are rarely confronted in a rational way in the news media. The general unconcern with meaningful evaluation suggests the nadir of critical thought in the United States.
It is true that belief in the paranormal has always been with us—séances were all the rage in the late 19 th century—but now with on-the-spot media and the Internet we should be able to see through the vacuous claims of pretended savants. And yet we leave ridiculous notions unchallenged, though the ramifications of the claims are a risk to our society. Police detectives cannot do anything with information provided by psychic detectives other than compare over-generalized comments to successful police work. Confirmation bias tends to make us remember only the times the so-called “psychically gifted” get a hit. John Edward bets his career on this point.
People are indeed—as a local reporter noted—”fascinated by things that can’t be rationalized,” and thus it is all the more important that we explain clearly the issues involved in thinking about such matters. The supposedly skeptical news media, however, foregrounds the sensational fascination of the subject. Last spring saw a splashy story in The Fresno Bee about ghost hunters from Fresno Adult School at the site of a local hotel. The activities of the investigators included a list of pseudo-scientific inquiries, from temperature variations to electromagnetic fields. Where was the critique that none of these methods provide robust support for what they claim?
We should ask why media outlets regularly treat astrolology. I’m sure they would maintain it is because people are entertained by such things. Indeed! Are they willing to label them “for entertainment only”? I have to turn off Pacifica Radio immediately when their midday zodiac and tarot show commences: they appear to be serious. Somehow Caroline Casey manages to connect sloppy new-age thinking with meaningful activism. I shouldn’t just pick on the loony left, though. There was no critical commentary on National Public Radio when Corey Flintoff did a report on a “seer and fortune teller” in Baghdad.
Though astrology may be entertaining, the doctor who delivered you had more gravitational influence upon you than any star other than the sun. Of course astrologers in the post-scientific revolution world have gotten wise: they no longer say it is direct influence, but the “rhythm of the cosmos” that influences your birth, and thus your personality and fortune. Equally vapid. As this construct is neither predictive nor falsifiable, it must be marked off as special pleading by those who see money to be made.
Numerous publications have begun to treat something called “biodynamic” (sometimes incorrectly defined as “organics plus”) growing methods. There is even an organization to authenticate the approach, which involves superstitious practices (such as burying manure in a cow’s horn) and astrological beliefs. We have allowed the “biodynamic” idea to slip into discourse all too insidiously: on September 14, 2007, NPR did an uncritical piece that celebrated “biodynamic” methods and “agricultural homeopathy.” Such unbalanced reporting keeps information from the public.
The standard defense of believers in the paranormal is that mean-spirited skeptics won’t consider alternative ideas. Ah, yes—in the final struggle between dour, curmudgeonly skepticism and warm, people-friendly gullibility, the choice is easy. In fact this construct relies on a false dichotomy. There is no divide between Western medicine and alternative medicine; there is simply medicine that works and medicine that does not work. Many traditional methods from indigenous peoples have been welcomed into the Western pharmacopoeia.
The news media should not only mention the counter-point to any paranormal claim within an article or segment, but, given the amount of misleading material that has been published, they should include pieces primarily focused on how the use of critical thought opens a far greater world of wonder than these half-digested schemes can convey. Throughout the last century, thinkers from Martin Gardner to Michael Shermer have brilliantly illuminated the reality that, as Gardner says in his book title: TheNight Is Large. The Truth is Out There. Have journalists the courage to forego the allure of easy entertainment to report it?
W. Marshall Johnston teaches ancient history and classics at Fresno Pacific University.