Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Anti-Muldar Society - I don't want to believe

Sometime in my pre-teens, I believe, I became interested in paranormal research. Visits to the bookstore were often a search for books on UFOs, mysteriously vanished ancient civilizations, esp, psychic powers, ghosts and magic. Although I enjoyed the ride immensely, and even tried to be persuasive in convincing others, I was Scully triumphing over Muldar – I wanted to believe, but when it came down to it, I couldn’t.

I’m cynical. That’s often meant as a negative, but if it was good enough for Diogenes, it’s good enough for me. Surveys show that I’m in a minority. Some people believe in most of the things I am going to go through below and many believe in some of them. And I’m not even going into theology here.

I find that business is often a good guide for what people really think. Because they need to make money, they have to be realistic about it. How do you know what topics belong in a category you should at least have doubts about. Because the business of bookstores lumps them together on the shelf bearing the topic label “paranormal”, “metaphysical” or “alternate”.

Long ago I came to deeply appreciate a magician named the Amazing Randi, whose fame was obtained not so much from his magic act as from his secondary career going around proving that the magical feats psychics and other mystics performed are really magic tricks. Not since Houdini has paranormal detective work been so well done.

For example, you can see on the web a video of him performing psychic surgery just like certain Philippine “psychic doctors” were supposed to have done it and which was reported in the media seriously. The only difference is he told you how it was done. Just go to YouTube and put in – “amazing randi psychic surgery”- and you can see his Tonight Show expose. Looks real – its not.

Randi is the author of one of my favorite books, The Mask of Nostradamus, in which he tells how he went to the expense of actually buying a several hundred year old Nostradamus text and then step by step debunks all the blather you have heard about it.

I can’t tell you how many intelligent people I’ve met who believe that Nostradamus predicted Hitler and Napoleon and even the destruction of the twin towers. The Mask is a fascinating story including some genuine World War II history.

Knowing that many people believed in Nostradamus’ powers didn’t stop me from being shocked when I learned that one of my closest friends not only completely believed it, but thought I was just being argumentative in denying the obvious truth of it. To his credit, when I gave him Randi’s book to read (well, I told him what chapters), he acknowledged his mistake.

But, I give him credit for that. It's unusual. Most believers would not even look or acknowledge the truth of the matter no matter how undeniable. Anyway, that experience puts the French seer on top of my list of things I don’t believe in and wish you didn’t either.

1. Nostradamus. Simply put, it is all nonsense, distortions and lies. Most often, what Nostradamus wrote about events, places and people at his time (16th century) and it has been repeatedly altered to fit modern situations. That was, for example, what was done to give him a prophecy about 9/11 that he never really had as well as the Hitler and Napoleon stories. The Mask of Nostradamus even includes a thrilling World War II intelligence story concerning Hitler and Nostradamus, that you might appreciate.

2. ESP. I give my father credit for opening my eyes about this one when I was a kid. We were discussing a fascinating book I had read about a renowned psychic, Peter Hurkos, and I admit that for once, my cynicism was shaken a bit by his story. I explained to Dad something I didn’t think he knew. The book was written by someone who was initially very skeptical and became convinced by the evidence she saw with her own eyes. He explained to me, correctly, that this was merely a trick that was frequently used to convince people like myself of the truth of something that just wasn’t so. Now, when I hear someone try to convince me or others about something mystical, I am never surprised to hear that they too were initially skeptics.

Lots of us feel we have extra sensory experiences. A frequent one occurs when someone calls us that we were just thinking about. My explanation of the experience, and it happens to me frequently too, is that we think about people we know all the time, but don’t really focus on it. Lots of times it is a brief thought such as . . . I should really call so and so. Sure enough so and so was thinking the same way and called first. No telepathy going on.

My favorite esp story - my sister, another skeptic, at least then, told me that she had become convinced that her secretary was psychic and that I would believe it too when I met her and she went to work on me. I got my chance. I was helping my sister move when her secretary pulled up out front in her car, walked up and said “You look just like I knew you would.” Problem was, she was talking to the landlord’s son. My sister looked at me and said “Just shut up.” I didn’t have to say a thing.

And I know that many of you out there will have stories told to you by friends or family that you trust and which seems inexplicable. The story has been subtly changed to make it more astounding (I wouldn’t believe my own mother if she told me a story about psychic powers), sometimes unconsciously, but sometimes very consciously. People simply want other people to believe the irrational things that they believe.

In fact, I believe it is more important to people in general that you believe the same irrational things they do, than the rationale beliefs they hold. Twice in my life people have admitted to me that they made up or embellished a story about paranormal events because they wanted me to believe. It’s just two, but it’s a start.

3. UFO’S – This topic was the subject of one of my first posts (9/13/06). I fully agree that there likely exists what we would consider life in the universe on other planets (we no longer have to speculate that there are other planets). It makes sense that in the trillions of solar systems out there that this has happened many times, not just this once for our benefit. I would therefore expect that there is also intelligent life out there. If there is a God, may he make alien women as good looking as they are on tv with the same fetish for belly shirts.

Despite the fact that I will watch any tv documentary about UFOs or aliens, I do not believe they are visiting us. My reasoning is this: If there are beings which have solved the problems of interstellar travel, seemingly insurmountable to us, then they are much smarter than we are. What our physicists can tell us about the universe lets us know that in order to travel these distances, they must have such phenomenal power in their ships, that they could easily watch us from the other side of the moon, if not the galaxy, and would not need to come down to earth to steal our cows, drain power from our lines or fly so slowly that they could be followed by our jet fighters.

Moreover, if they have come here, then they are enough like us psychologically that they would likely do the same things we did when we were exploring the world – kill, conquer or trade. None of these things has happened and it’s been a long time.

If I am wrong on any one of these subjects, I expect and hope this is the one.

5. Ghosts – There are no such things as ghosts. I don’t care what stories you have heard, there are no such things. When you are dead you are dead.

When I went to junior high I let it be known that there was a ghost in my basement. At one point all of the guys in my class came over to see it. A number of others (including fellow blogger Bear, who wrote a story about it for the school paper 5 years before we became good friends) also visited. It sure seemed like there was a ghost there.

I even remember my friend, Reiner, watching from behind a closet with his bb gun in hand, for the ghost to appear. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the door to the closet slowly and noisily started closing on him. There was no wind down there and neither of us touched it. We ran. That’s what we always did. Despite lots of “evidence,” I don’t believe it was a ghost, but our imaginations acting on random events. Frankly, if I ever really believed it, I never would have been able to go to sleep at night. But, it was lots of fun.

Not believing in ghosts can come in handy. A few years ago I was sleeping in a creepy old mansion in Ireland. I was kicked out of my room for supposedly snoring (I think she was just being mean) and had to walk past a large cracked mirror in the hallway, down a very creaky stairs, into the dusty and portrait filled library to lie down on the couch to sleep. I looked around the room, said to myself, “Damn, I’m glad I don’t believe in ghosts” and went to sleep. I know quite a few people who never would have closed their eyes.

In my own experience, women are much more inclined to believe in ghosts (and psychics) than men, or, at least, take it much more seriously. I have known very few men who have gone to a medium (not including men forced to by their wives), but any number of women who do. When I’ve discussed it with them, the reason for their beliefs always seemed to be a version of the same – do you want to believe you die and don’t get to see the people you love? That’s a nice thought, but it’s just a thought.

6. The powers of crystals, pyramids and amulets - How many people do you know who believe in this? I’ve met more than a few. I used to work with a very congenial woman who believed in pretty much everything. If it was even remotely supernatural, she bought it. On her desk was a collection of four beautiful crystals. They really were stunning. So, one day, I talked her into going to the bagel store for everyone. While she was out, I confiscated her crystals and replaced them with four of the ugliest rocks the same size I could find outside. When she came back with the food we sat around her desk and waited. The way her eyes opened when she noticed the switch was priceless. I’m giggling now thinking back on it. She admitted that the thought that something demonic had occurred briefly entered her mind. She was a good sport though and laughed along with us.

7. Spells - Are you serious? If you believe in spells raise your hand? Now put your hands down and schedule yourself for a lobotomy. It won’t make any difference to you, but will improve the rest of our lives immensely.

8. Reincarnation - I would like to believe in reincarnation. I would come back as a rich and beautiful lesbian living in Hollywood. What real man wouldn’t? But, despite the large number of people who believe in it, it is about as real as ouija boards.

I am often amazed that so many religious people believe in reincarnation even though it completely contradicts their own religion’s doctrine. That’s the beauty of supernatural stuff. It doesn’t have to make any sense.

9. Ouija boards - I guess there are people who still believe in the power of these boards to communicate with the spirit world (as if there is a spirit world), but, I suppose those same people expect Snap, Crackle and Pop to jump out of their box of Rice Krispies in the morning too. I’m happy to report that most people seem to grow out of this one.

10. Fortune tellers - Too many women I know also swallow this flummery whole. C’mon folks. Do they ever tell you anything specific? Ever, ever? Usually it's of the order of “You will meet someone named J.S.“ Well, with all the Johns, Jennifers, Joes, Jills, Jacks, etc. in the world, it really isn’t much of a surprise, is it? You will meet someone, someone you know will die, blah, blah, blah. Oy vey.

I remember with relish a friend who went to a psychic many years ago and wrote everything down. She refused to read me her notes, correctly assuming I would mock her, but repeatedly said that virtually everything predicted had come true. After a year of merciless teasing from me she triumphantly took it out and we thoroughly went over it. Even she admitted, not one thing was accurate. Nothing.

11. Hypnosis. Even Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic Magazine and author of Why Smart People Believe Stupid Things, believes in hypnosis. How disappointing. We should be skeptical when a supposed state of mind can’t be measured, when it can’t be defined, when an active imagination is a key characteristics of being “susceptible” to it, when people who don’t believe in it can’t be affected by it, etc. Michael, it seems to me, is pulling a Muldar – he wants to believe at least in something. Maybe he thinks it gives him credibility or makes him seem more open minded. I can’t think of a good reason.

There are studies which seem to show a hypnotic state. My advice to you – don’t just swallow the blurbs for the studies or media reports (virtually always wrong). Studies are hard to get by non-academic people, but you may know some college kid or professor with access. Read the actual study. If you can do so easily it is probably not very scientific because real science is drowned in statistics that are Greek to most of us. Frequently, even the ones with lots of statistics frequently prove to be wrong even when peer reviewed (which I’ve also learned means nothing much; often they are prefunctory with the reviewers wanting to be judged just as easily when their turn come).

What I’m trying to say in my awkward longwinded fashion is, don’t swallow it whole without examination. Let me go back to business people. If it was real, it would be marketed big time and not just by “hypnotists.”

Some of you may say, but I personally have been hypnotized. I think you think you have, but I don’t think you have. It’s not a matter of faith. It’s a matter of it contradicts my understanding, however limited, of the universe.

12. The power of prayer to heal. This is a difficult one to study. My own skepticism makes any form of distance healing impossible whether prayer or shooting white light at someone (my spiritual uncle tried shooting white lights at my mother when she was dying of cancer. Result - she died.)

A number of studies have been done testing intercessory prayer and things like faith healing by touch. Some resulted in no positive findings, but others have. My personal belief is that the positive studies were either badly done, i.e., they did not randomize patients well, weren’t sufficiently blind or controlled, etc. There is also the possibility of fudged data in this very emotional area. If it really worked, don’t you think that hospitals would be relying on it a lot? Why aren’t they? Because, in real life, it doesn’t work.

As with many things in life, you can’t prove or disprove anything absolutely. I choose not to believe these things because they contradict everything I know, however limited, about the real world.

All right, do I have proof of all my beliefs? Of course not. Would it matter if I could? Of course not.

None of the above will convince you of anything if you choose to believe. I can never quote enough The Amazing Randi at the end of The Mask of Nostradamus. It’s one of my favorite quotes and if I spread this gospel to ten people in my life, I’ve contributed something to the world:

“The legend of Nostradamus, faulty as it is, will survive it all. Not because of its worth, but because of its seductive attraction, the idea that the Prophet of Salon could see into the future will persist. An ever-abundant number of interpreters will pop up to renew the shabby exterior of his image, and that gloss will serve to entice more unwary fans into acceptance of the false predictions that have enthralled millions in the centuries since his death. Shameless rationalizations will be made, ugly facts will be ignored and common sense will continue to be submerged in enthusiasm.”


  1. Anonymous11:34 AM

    I'm glad you don't believe in reincarnation...I wouldn't want you getting your hopes up about the gorgeous lesbian scenario. BTW I saw the X files movie last night so this mad eme chuckle.

  2. Hypnotism has a long, legitimate history. Though I know there is no point in trying to convert a diehard sceptic, just as there is no way to dissuade a "true believer". This is a no-win debate. I agree with most of what you hoist on your petard.

  3. Well, I do know lots of people, not just Michael Shermer, who do not believe in anything else but do hypnosis. I think there is something going on with the people who believe they are hypnotized, but it is not a different mental state. I do disagree that it has a legitimate history, although belief in it may have its uses. But, gravity works for all of us, and even optical illusions work on most of us. Things that only work on those who believe or have a good imagination (and those aren't my requirements -- they are often the requirements of promoters) will not be believed by this die hard skeptic. But, I actually have been convinced of a couple of things I was skeptical of when it was proved to me. Rare, but it happens.


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .