15 February 2012


Erich Goode. The Paranormal: Who Believes, Why They Believe, and Why It Matters. Prometheus Books, 2012

Erich Goode is a sociologist and thus, for the purposes of this book he defines paranormalism as beliefs labelled by scientists as contrary to scientific law. The book, then, is about this labelling process and its consequences, and not about whether any particular belief could be true or not.
A distinction is also made between paranormalism and pseudoscience, although the two overlap. Pseudoscience is belief in things which could exist but for which there is no convincing evidence.

As this is an American book it is concerned mainly with beliefs in the USA, which in this respect is quite different from the rest of the world. We are informed that, worldwide, intensity of religious belief is strongly related to poverty: the richer the country the less religious it is. For example, 65 per cent of Americans said, in a 2009 Gallup poll, that "religion is very important in my daily life", as against 30 per cent of French, 27 per cent of British and 24 per cent of Japanese.

The relationship between religion and paranormal beliefs is rather complex. One example which Goode gives is astrology which is rejected by mainstream Christianity. (It was not always rejected, but its rejection began about the time of the gradual acceptance of the new astronomy, which followed the invention of the telescope.) The complexity of the relationships between paranormal, religious, scientific and political beliefs is such that, although the casual reader might find the facts and the discussion rather tortuous, the author is obviously forced to oversimplify some of it. The relationships between religion and science are particularly difficult to describe, as one must take account of changes in religion over time and the fact that many religious adherents hold somewhat heterodox beliefs. Some religious doctrines are reinterpreted, a few are discarded, and others become dead letters.

There is, as one would expect in an American book on this subject, quite a lot on creationism, as this belief also distinguishes the USA from other countries. In countries where surveys have been conducted, only Turkey ranked higher than the USA for belief in creationism, with only 40 per cent of Americans accepting evolution, compared with 70 to 80 per cent in most European countries.

Goode suggests that one reason for the popularity of creationism in America is its association with religious fundamentalism with its tendency to regard the theory of evolution as portraying the emergence of intelligent life as an accident of nature rather than as a result of God's design and purpose. Thus, people who believe in unscientific theories such as creationism prefer teleological explanations, which means that they believe that every event has an inherent purpose, rather than assigning their own meanings to it.

Other subjects dealt with include parapsychology, UFOs, and paranormalism in the media, politics and social movements.

Parapsychology is distinct from the other paranormal belief systems in its insistence on using controlled, scientific experiments, rather than relying on anecdotal evidence. Nevertheless, sceptics firmly refuse to accept that any of its findings are valid, by arguing that its experimental methods are not rigorous enough and that it lacks a coherent theoretical basis.

In the chapter on UFOs, Goode recognises that the term UFO really means "a flying object that hasn't yet been identified", although most people take it to mean an extraterrestrial craft. He thinks that most scientists dismiss the belief that alien spacecraft visit Earth by using the argument that the distances from other stars are too great, the familiar "they can't get here from there" argument. My impression, though, is that most of the objections are based on the lack of convincing physical evidence and of detailed unexplained UFO reports with multiple independent witnesses.

Goode concludes that scientists disagree with ordinary folk in believing common sense to be a poor guide to drawing conclusions about the material world, hence the tension between scientific method and paranormal beliefs. He states that sociologists and other social scientists have largely ignored paranormal beliefs as a subject of investigation. It is to be hoped that this interesting book will inspire some of them to carry out work in this field, as the author has demonstrated that this is an important subject. -- John Harney.


Anonymous said...

"Pseudoscience is belief in things which could exist but for which there is no convincing evidence"

You mean like string theory? sure lots of theoretical work has been done but so far nothing has been tested to actually substantiate any of it beyond the drawing board.

John Harney said...

That's a good point. There's lots of argument, scientific and otherwise, on the web as to whether or not string theory is pseudoscientific.

John Harney