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{Published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, October 27, 2010}

Why do people believe in things that are obviously nonsense?

Halloween is around the corner. It was great fun when my kids were little; I still enjoy it when kids come to my door. Dressing up as scary creatures helps children cope with their natural fear of the unknown. And dressing up in costume is fun for adults too, as this Rocky Horror quintagenarian will happily attest.

But instead of setting beliefs in monsters aside, too many adults graduate to even weirder things. Vampires, demons, ESP, angels, dowsing, ghosts, astrology, astral projection, crystal energy, witchcraft, the ability of prayer to heal or curses to harm, and psychic powers all fall into the category of things for which there is overwhelming evidence that they are not real. Yet millions of people believe in them. Especially around this time of year.

This month’s “Skeptical Inquirer” has an article on the huge sales of paranormal romances. These are your typical bosom-heaving, bodice-ripping, Fabio-depicting paperbacks, with the added twist that the (usually male) protagonist has some sort of supernatural ability. In the words of one editor reviewing manuscripts, “Anything paranormal goes to the top of the stack.”

You might think it’s only pulp fiction that’s affected. Not so. Rhonda Byrne’s “The Power” has been on the New York Times advice bestseller list for nine weeks now. Like Byrne’s previous work “The Secret,” it is pure and unadulterated New Age foo-foo. She claims, among other things, that whatever you dream can be yours if you make use of the (newly discovered by her) Universal Law of Attraction.

This is, if I may be so bold, horse puckey. More accurately, there is absolutely no credible evidence to support any of the things written in either “The Secret” or “The Power,” and enormous evidence against them. So that’s what I believe. When the evidence says otherwise, I’ll change my mind.

Why does any of this matter? Why not let people believe whatever they want, if it isn’t harming anybody? In fact, there are some very good reasons to speak out against nonsense.

For one, resources spent indulging silliness are resources taken from things that could actually help. Time spent taking a screaming child to an exorcism could have been spent taking her to a hospital. Time spent with “The Power” could have been spent with a therapist.

Failure to think critically also affects politics, and politics affects everybody. Remember Mike Huckabee’s tear-ridden testimony about how certain he was that supernatural forces propelled him to victory in the Iowa presidential caucuses? And yet, when he crashed and burned in the polls shortly afterward, how he was strangely silent?

Am I the only person concerned about such an individual becoming the Commander in Chief of the most powerful military in the world?

Such suspicions are not mere speculation. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation has clients who are soldiers in that same military, soldiers responsible for nuclear weapons. They came to MRFF when they were coerced to participate in prayers asking for supernatural guidance in launching their missiles. Anyone see a problem here?

For every kind of phenomenon mentioned in these past few paragraphs, many people, sometimes millions, will insist that it is absolutely real. Unfortunately, passionate testimony turns out to be a lousy way of discovering how the world actually is. Once we understand our natural human biases and try, however imperfectly, to remove them from how we acquire knowledge, evidence for “weird” things vanishes in a puff of smoke.

Fortunately, plenty of other things reveal themselves. The law of gravity. Vaccines. Antibiotics. Quantum mechanics. Cancer cures. Longer human lifespans. Crops that prevent famine. The common structure and history of all life. Space travel. Hurricane warnings. Tall buildings that stay up. The list goes on and on. Most important of all, an objective, impartial and constantly questioning approach to knowledge reveals a truly wondrous and awe-inspiring universe.

This Halloween, I hope everyone will keep that in mind. The tricks of the world as we want it to be are nothing compared to the treats of the world as it actually is.

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