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'Skeptics' Give Some Insight Into Blind Faith

September 09, 1996|LEE DYE

We all hold some truths to be self-evident that do, in fact, fly in the face of reason. Public opinion polls consistently show that many Americans believe that some people have been abducted by aliens from space, that fortune tellers know what the future holds and that horoscopes can tell us what the stars have in store for us.

Anyone who has tried to argue with a believer in any of the above knows of the futility of trying to apply reason to the basically unreasonable. James Alcock, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, says that's because the human mind is a complex data-processing system as subject to whim, memory and emotion as it is to reason.

Alcock thinks most of our beliefs have little basis in truth because the human brain is "a belief-generating machine, an engine that produces beliefs without any particular respect for what is real or true and what is not."

Alcock is a member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), an organization composed mostly of scientists who have taken upon themselves the task of making the rest of us come to our senses. The group recently announced the formation of a program aimed at helping children learn how to think straight.

Although the goals of the program may be laudable, it is strange to see a group that includes many Nobel laureates in its membership devote so much time and energy to debunking subjects that are sure to survive the most diligent application of logic. Many of our beliefs simply are not founded on critical thinking. Most religious leaders, for example, concede that religion is based not on reason but on faith, something that lies outside the scope of science. Although the "skeptics," as members of the organization call themselves, try to steer clear of religion, many of their targets fall into similar categories.

Joe Nickell, a magician-turned- detective-turned-literary-scholar, is coordinating the new program. Nickell, senior research fellow at the skeptics headquarters in Amherst, N.Y., is best known for his crusade against statements that the so-called Shroud of Turin was the burial cloth of Jesus. Although carbon dating shows the shroud dates only to the Middle Ages, many cling to the belief that the faint image of a face on the fabric is that of Christ.

How did Nickell expect to convince them otherwise?

"I realized early on that I probably would not be able to influence the true believers," he said in an interview. "I never tried to. I realized that was a hopeless waste of time. It's hard to talk with someone who has his fingers in his ears."

Nickell, who says he has been vilified all over the world for his position, said he hoped instead to reach those who were still trying to decide whether the shroud was authentic.

"I believe that between the choir and the condemned, there might be some savable souls," he said.

Some might find the skeptics' self-appointed position as arbiters of truth a bit arrogant. Nickell concedes that could be a problem.

"You may be arrogant to think you know the truth," he said. Unless, he added, you're right.

Alcock's research shows that belief in the paranormal or supernatural has little to do with education. Despite rising literacy rates and higher levels of education, most of us still believe in things that cannot be supported by pure reason, he says.

Alcock divides the brain into seven "units" ranging from critical thinking to "the yearning unit."

"The system is as capable of generating fallacious beliefs as it is of generating beliefs that are in line with truth," he has written, because each unit colors the data it receives with its own biases and preconceptions.

Learning is still driven by the need to survive, he says, and thus information that enters the brain through the "input unit" is codified to aid in our survival.

"In general, we yearn to reduce anxiety," Alcock argues. "Often beliefs that might be categorized as irrational by scientists are the most efficient at reducing these yearnings. Rationality and scientific truth have little to offer for most people as remedies for existential anxiety. However, belief in reincarnation, supernatural intervention and everlasting life can overcome such anxiety to some extent."

We believe some things simply because they work, not necessarily because they are true.

Alcock thinks people who are emotionally healthy may be more prone to erect false beliefs than those who are depressed. False beliefs may shield the perennially cheerful from the realities of life, while people who are already down may be more inclined to see the world as it really is.

Lee Dye can be reached via e-mail at

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