Nonsense Watch:

A new report from the National Science Foundation (NSF) found that while Americans claim to love science and technology, most don't understand it. Americans seem to blindly revere things "scientific" and also extend that reverence to pseudoscience and superstition, including belief in aliens, psychic powers, and haunted houses.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines superstition as the "unreasoning awe or fear of something unknown, mysterious or imaginary." So what draws us to such imaginary beliefs? Perhaps they give us a sense of control over things that are uncontrollable. Discovering exactly why things happen may be difficult if not impossible for a lay person, so the rationale provided by superstition offers a comfortable refuge from painful reality. Science is difficult and time-consuming while pseudoscience is quick and easy.

Superstition is not limited to otherworldly events such as UFOs and mind reading. Some baseball fans insist on going through certain rituals before or during every game; while they cannot participate directly, they are convinced that they have the power to help their team win. Some lottery players will always use the same "lucky" numbers, believing that the laws of chance will bend in their favor. Once in a while, the fan's team wins, and sometimes -- though not nearly as often -- the lottery player wins a big prize. Because we often focus on these positive events and disregard the times when our charms failed to work -- emphasizing only the "hits" and ignoring the "misses" -- we see a cause-and-effect relationship. Over time, the associations we make get stronger and become harder to dispel, no matter how nonsensical.

Speaking of nonsensical, police departments, flummoxed by hard-to-crack criminal cases, are turning to psychics for help. (In this, they're simply following the embarrassing precedent set by U.S. intelligence agencies such as the CIA.) Not that psychic "seers" have a good track record in this regard. In the search for a missing 20-year-old, Tara Sidarovich, the Sun-Herald reported last month that police in Florida were consulting psychics. The Reverend Cheryl Acker, was one of them. She told the Sun-Herald that everyone has "the ability... . It's an energy connection. This is a gift from God. I deal with him and with the angels." Despite her immense powers (according to the newspaper, she "assisted in finding a stolen dog and a missing boyfriend"), Acker has yet to help solve a homicide, or help solve this case.

There's no reputable evidence that psychics could offer anything of value to a police investigation. Indeed, any manpower dedicated to investigating "leads" supplied by psychics is almost certainly a waste of vital resources. Psychics not only muddle investigations, they can cause families and friends of the victims even more anguish. And yet we still bring them into the fold.

Of course, these examples mostly involve ordinary people. Surely the scientifically savvy, such as medical practitioners, are immune to such things? According to a 1987 study in the Journal of Emergency Medicine, 64 percent of emergency-room doctors and 80 percent of emergency-room nurses believe that the moon affects the mental state of their patients. They claim that they get swamped with cases when there is a full moon. Many link it to changes in barometric pressure. Unfortunately there is no systematic evidence that the full moon produces any increase in births, deaths, or emergency-room admissions. Studies published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, the Journal of Emergency Nursing and Psychological Report have found no correlation between any of these events and the lunar cycle. Calls to crisis hot lines have been plotted against phases of the moon; so have murders and other crimes. None of the statistically and scientifically rigorous studies shows an association between full moons and such behaviors. But the belief persists.

Is there any real harm in these kinds of superstitious beliefs? Sometimes. Fear of bad luck results in missed opportunities and makes us ever more gullible. The immense sums of money raked in by psychic hotlines, where people subsume their own judgments to the whimsy of strangers, should certainly concern us if the callers are not that wealthy. Credulous thinking normally leads to poor decision making. When ordinary citizens are no longer able or willing to think critically, complex thought itself can become a realm reserved for "experts." They can make the decisions while we just watch TV.

Our inability or reluctance to understand science and scientific practice and our readiness to simply accept it makes us vulnerable to rummy thinking of all sorts. Superstition is the easy way to live, but the more we give in to the seductive pull of faulty reasoning, the less control we actually have over our lives and our society.

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