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Belief in Woo

December 22, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

It’s almost Christmas again so I guess it’s also time to deal with belief in superstitious nonsense (also known as “woo”) again. A recent report showed that belief in the paranormal, superstition, and various other oddities is quite strong in new Zealand although it’s better than in some other countries like the US where superstition in the form of religious belief is much stronger.

There were various statistics presented in the report so I might just go through a few of them and comment on related matters of (I hope) interest.

According to the survey of 1000 people about a third think the Earth has been visited by aliens. So called “minority” groups such as Maori and Pacific people had a higher rate of belief than New Zealanders of European origin. I’m not sure what that means.

There’s nothing too silly about believing in aliens. After all, just about every rational person thinks there is life elsewhere in the Universe, that life should lead to intelligence at least in some cases, and that some intelligent life must be far more advanced than us since our planet formed almost 10 billion years after the Big Bang.

The problem is that if aliens have visited Earth they have certainly acted strangely. They seem to have been very obvious to certain groups of people and kept themselves well hidden from others (for example, very few UFO reports come from astronomers). So even if we think aliens should exist I think it’s still safest to work on the interim hypothesis that they haven’t visited Earth.

The same survey found that 55 per cent believe that some people have psychic power, such as ESP. I guess a lot of popular culture does push the idea that psychic powers are real and few people have much familiarity with the real research (and even then there are a few results which seem to support the idea) so this level of belief isn’t a surprise.

Psychic powers in general would require new laws of physics because it’s hard to see how they could be accommodated within the current understanding of the Universe, but they aren’t completely impossible. However the requirement to change the well understood laws of physics to explain a phenomenon which has almost zero evidence for existence is not rational. So people who believe in psychic powers are very likely either ignorant or irrational. Still, the fact that those labels apply to only just over half our population is actually fairly good!

The fact that women (67%), older people (63%), and Maori (60%) are more likely to believe is probably best left alone. It’s hard to comment on a phenomenon like that without seeming sexist, ageist or racist!

So what about that ultimate question: Does God exist? In New Zealand 60% of the population believe in a “god or universal spirit”. It’s rather unfortunate that the “universal spirit” bit was added there because I don’t think anyone (myself included) really knows what that means. It can mean so many different things that it really means nothing so the whole statistic is almost useless.

That result is actually quite low, especially when the “universal spirit” stuff is included. Obviously genuine religious belief is low here and other recent statistics seem to indicate it is declining. Good news at last!

Related to this 80% think that Jesus was a real person and 57% believe in life after death. Belief in Jesus as a real person is yet another question which is open to interpretation. Obviously the Bible stories aren’t true, and no rational person would believe them, if only for the reason that the stories are contradictory!

So how close to the traditional portrayal of Jesus would a real historic figure have to be before we could say he actually was the person described in the Bible (because he really wasn’t described anywhere else, a suspicious fact in itself)? Would it be sufficient to have someone who vaguely fitted the description? Should we say the Bible gospels are “based on a true story” like some movies?

Regarding life after death. Maybe this is based on wishful thinking although it was interesting to note that older people believed in it less than younger! There has been real research in this area with some interesting results but the more solid studies which should reveal good evidence have all revealed nothing, a classic sign of a phenomenon which doesn’t exist.

Yet again men were more cynical and women more credulous regarding the existence of god (and don’t forget that rather poorly defined “universal spirit”). Obviously women are more open to poorly supported ideas. Is this good or bad? I will leave it to you to decide!

Finally the saddest statistic of all: a quarter of the participants in the survey believe that astrology can predict the future. Astrology is really rather silly and I’m a bit surprised that belief in it is that high. Still, I suppose it’s all those women pushing the rate up!

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