Thinking and the Paranormal

by Henry Gordon

Editor’s Note: Henry Gordon, a CSICOP fellow and head of the Ontario Skeptics, wrote this piece nearly a decade ago, and his call for courses in critical thinking is just as relevant today.

The potential problems facing humankind in the next century are, of course, too numerous to mention. It seems to me that the most important factor to consider is the capability of the human brain to cope with the various issues as they develop -- which brings us to the basic problem: Can men and women learn to think rationally and critically and make judgments based on objective and logical assessments?

We have only to look at the area of belief in the paranormal to realize that we are a long, long way from the utopian state. Every poll taken in recent years, whether in our universities or among the general public, has indicated that a large percentage of the population accepts the validity of astrology, extrasensory perception, UFO visitations, channeling, and all the other nonsensical claims.

We have made tremendous advances in science and technology in the last several decades. But it is quite evident that, as far as superstition-based beliefs are concerned, man’s mind has never shifted out of first gear.

As long as these irrational beliefs are passed along from one generation to the next -- and they are -- the human thinking apparatus will not develop to the extent necessary to deal with upcoming problems. It is paradoxical that our young people are being taught the sophisticated intricacies of modern technology but are still unable to distinguish the difference between science and pseudoscience. These are the people who will be shaping the world of tomorrow. They, and their children, are the ones who will have to cope with the environmental, economic, and human problems we have inconsiderately bequeathed them. Our problem, right now, is to decide how we can help them learn and apply the art of critical thinking. How? There is really only one vehicle: through the educational system. Beginning in the secondary schools, the curriculum should include a course on the subject of critical thinking -- no matter how brief. But these skills can be developed further in the colleges and universities. The results would be quite dramatic.

It has been said that the establishment probably frowns on this concept -- why educate masses to be too critical? We must combat this awful cynicism. Why admit defeat before making a strong attempt to sell the idea?

Keep in mind that the willingness to accept outrageous claims is not confined to those who are stupid, unbalanced, or uneducated. The number of educated, literate, and intelligent people who believe in paranormal phenomena is surprisingly high. One could list any number of celebrated authors, scientists, inventors, industrialists, artists, politicians -- going back 150 years -- who accepted and supported the belief in ghosts, in spiritualism, and in every kind of supernatural occurrence. Evidently they never attended courses in critical thinking. You may say that many of them lived in a different age. No matter. There are just as many, if not more, of these high-profile people in our enlightened and sophisticated age.

Whenever I sit on a panel that includes psychics or other purveyors of the paranormal -- in a television studio or on the lecture platform -- I scan the audience, most of whom are usually believers. One thought keeps occurring to me: These are the people who elect the legislative and administrative officials whose decisions direct our globe.

It’s a sobering thought.

Reprinted with permission from Free Inquiry, Summer 1988 isssue.

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