A breezy piece on celebrities, woo, and warning signs of bullshit

December 11, 2016


Do you believe in ghosts? In psychic powers? In communication with the dead? In alien abduction?


If you do, you’re not alone. Belief in the weird and wacky – or “woo” as some sceptics disparagingly call it – is as strong as ever. Science is taking huge strides forward. Yet many of us continue to believe in stuff that, according to science, is at best dubious and often downright absurd.


Woo is often associated with celebrity. The media present an endless parade of scientifically dubious cures, diets, “detoxes” and philosophies, each with its own celebrity user.


David Beckham and Kate Middleton have been seen spotted wearing hologram-embedded silicone bracelets claimed to help energy and fitness. Cheryl Cole said about a scientifically baseless blood-type diet,  “It has made such a difference, not just to my shape, but to how I feel and my energy levels.” Jodie Kidd tells us that, when she suffered crippling panic attacks in her youth, only crystals helped.


Scientology, which teaches that we are the descendent of aliens who were brought to the Earth 75 millions years ago by Xenu, alien ruler of a “Galactic Confederacy”, is also famously endorsed by many celebrities, including Tom Cruise and John Travolta.


But perhaps the greatest celebrity source of belief in the scientifically questionable is Oprah Winfrey, who regularly gave airtime to psychics, mediums, and pseudo-scientific health regimes on a show going out to an estimated audience of 100 million.


Oprah’s show appealed particularly to women. Women’s magazines are much more likely to include horoscopes and ask-a-psychic columns. Attend a mind-body-spirit festival and you can’t help but notice that most of the customers lining up to buy healing crystals and astrological charts are women. So are women more gullible than men? Are they more prone to belief in woo?


No. Research shows that while women are more likely to believe in telepathy, ghosts and astrology, men tend to be drawn to other varieties of woo. Men are more likely to believe we’re visited by aliens, for example. They’re also more likely to believe conspiracy theories, such as that lunar landings were faked. And belief in the creatures of “cryptozoology”, such as Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster, is also more appealing to men.


Women, it turns out, just go for a different kind of woo.


You may say, “But what does it really matter if Granny thinks she can read the future in her tea leaves? Surely that’s just a bit of harmless fun?”  Well, yes, it probably is harmless fun. However, there are dangers involved in belief in woo, and it’s wise to be wary of them.


In some cases, the dangers are clear. The hazards posed by cults are obvious. Take the Heaven’s Gate cult. Its members committed suicide believing they would be transported to a UFO. These were educated, intelligent people whose minds were fatally captured by nonsense. And of course, the victims of religious cults can also be led to commit terrorist attacks.


There are other dangers. Each year, large sums are spent on alternative treatments that have no real medical effect. People may also expose themselves to health risks as a result. Despite thorough investigation, there’s no good scientific evidence homeopathy has any medical benefits. Quite the contrary. Yet the actress Julia Sawalha has said: “I don’t get inoculations or take anti-malaria tablets when I go abroad. I take the homeopathic alternative, called ‘nosodes’ and I’m the only one who never goes down with anything.”


Vast sums are spent annually on astrologers, psychics, and others claiming extraordinary powers. People have raided their life savings in the desperate hope they’ll receive a miracle cure. Bereaved parents have paid for reassurances about their dead children that are, in reality, worthless. Belief in woo allows people to be exploited financially.

So yes, while there’s plenty of harmless fun in woo, it’s not all harmless.

At this point, you may be thinking, “But you’re just assuming that all this stuff is nonsense. You’re just assuming there are no ghosts, guardian angels or genuine gurus. Maybe there’s truth to some to these claims. Don’t be so closed-minded.”

Yes, we shouldn’t be closed-minded. We can’t just assume people don’t have guardian angels or that psychic powers aren’t real. We can’t just assume that every conspiracy theory is false.


So let’s not be closed-minded. But, as Tim Minchin sings, “If you open your mind too much, your brain will fall out”. There’s an awful lot of nonsense out there. If we don’t want our minds to fill up with it, we need to apply a filter. The only effective filter we have is reason and science. We need to think like detectives – carefully weighing up the evidence and arguments as impartially as we can. If we don’t, our heads are soon going to fill up with junk beliefs.


Personally, I’d love to believe that crop circles are made by aliens, that there’s a monster in Loch Ness, and that people can bend spoons with their minds. But, so far as I can see – and I’ve looked – none of these claims is scientifically credible. If someone shows me good evidence homeopathy works, I’ll believe it. But so far, I’ve seen none.


Particularly worrying are those belief systems that turn people into converts to the cause – true believers who think they’ve seen the truth and everyone else is deluded. Cults are an obvious example, but conspiracy theories and self-help philosophies can also end up transforming intelligent, college-educated people into willing slaves of claptrap.


I call these kinds of belief system intellectual black holes. Once you’ve been sucked in, it can be very hard to think your way out again.


If we want to immunize the next generation against such dangerously seductive twaddle, let’s at least make sure they understand the warning signs. So what are the warning signs that you’re approaching an intellectual black hole?  Here are one or two examples.


Playing the mystery card


People often try to sidestep objections to belief in, say, psychic powers, by appealing to mystery. They might say: “Ah, but this is beyond the ability of science and reason to decide.” They might well follow this up with that quote from Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.


Of course it’s sometimes reasonable to appeal to mystery to defend a theory. If I have excellent evidence water freezes at 0C but in one experiment it appears not to, it’s reasonable for me to put this down to some unknown factor – a faulty thermometer perhaps. It might also be reasonable to believe that, say, smoking causes cancer even if it remains mysterious how it does so. So appeals to mystery have their place, even in science. But the more we rely on mystery to get us out of trouble – the more we use it as a carpet under which to sweep inconvenient facts – the more vulnerable we make ourselves to deceit, by both others and by ourselves.


Going Nuclear

Perhaps the most irritating strategy employed by victims of intellectual black holes is to suddenly get sceptical about reason. You give them a reasoned argument. They respond with, “Ah, but reason is just another faith position.” Yet they were quite happy to use reason up until you cornered them. And of course they’ll continue to use reason to support their case if they can. In fact, you can be sure they’ll continue to trust their life to reason. They’ll trust that the brakes on their car will work, for example. So they’re not really sceptical about reason.

That’s not to say there isn’t an interesting philosophical puzzle about how to justify reason. To do so, it seems you need to use reason. But then the justification will circular – a bit like trusting a second hand car salesman because he says he’s trustworthy, which is no justification at all. But the person who dismisses reason isn’t really skeptical at all. They’re being intellectually inconsistent. Indeed, they’re generally happy to rely on reason until it begins to threaten what they believe – only at that point do they Go Nuclear.

Heavy reliance on anecdotes


Belief in woo is often heavily supported by anecdotes – by personal testimony. People will say, “Well, I saw my guardian angel”, or “Well, I visited Mystic Madge and she knew things shouldn’t couldn’t possibly have known if she wasn’t psychic.”


Belief in homeopathy is almost entirely justified by anecdote. In fact, I myself took a homeopathic remedy for a persistent sore throat back in my early twenties, and I got better. I know of many similar cases where homoeopathy has “worked”. So why don’t I believe it works? Why isn’t a large number of anecdotes powerf
ul evidence it works?


The problem with anecdotal evidence is this. We should expect an awful lot of anecdotes about ghosts, aliens, miracle cures and so on even if none of these things are real. But if we should expect such reports anyway, then they’re not good evidence such things are real.


But why should we expect such reports? Here are a few reasons to begin with.


Consider the placebo effect. During the Second World War, anesthetist Henry Beecher was faced with a lack of morphine. So he tried a desperate tactic. Beecher injected a wounded soldier with inert saline solution and told the soldier it was painkiller. Astonishingly, it worked. The soldier stopped moaning. When Beecher tried the same ploy on other soldiers, he got the same result. It turns out that if you tell people something will make them better – that it will reduce their pain, remove their acne, or whetaver – they’ll believe it does, even if it doesn’t.


The Placebo effect, plus the fact that people tend to get better anyway, even without treatment, does much to explain the enormous popularity of blooding letting from antiquity until the late nineteenth century. It was used to treat almost every disease. In 1799, George Washington was bled as treatment for a throat infection. He died. Bloodletting would not have helped the President’s throat, and it might well have killed him. So why did people believe so fervently that bloodletting worked? Because of anecdotal evidence. Because some people were bled and then got better. “See”, said the bloodletters, “it works!” Homeopaths say then same thing today.


But what of reports of, say, alien spacecraft? They can’t all be dismissed as rubbish, can they?


We are amazingly prone to “see” things that are not really there.  One of my favourite examples a UFO over a U.S. nuclear plant. Police arrived. One officer confirmed, “It was about half the size of the moon, and it just hung there over the plant. Must have been there nearly two hours.” The County magistrate saw a rectangular object “about the size of a football field.” There was even a rogue radar blip reported by air traffic control. Yet we know, pretty much for sure, that what was seen by those police officers was the planet Venus. Journalists arrived on the scene, were shown the object, and chased it in their car. They found they couldn’t approach it. Finally, they looked at it through a long lens and saw it was Venus. That radar blip was a coincidence.

What does this show? Every year there are countless amazing reports of religious miracles, alien abductions, ghosts, and so on. In most cases, it’s easy to come up with plausible mundane explanations for them. But not all. Some remain deeply baffling.

So should we believe in such things, then?

No. For, as my UFO story illustrates, we know that some very hard-to-explain reports of miracles, flying saucers, and so on will probably show up anyway, whether or not there’s any truth to such claims. That 1967 case could easily have been such a baffling case.