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Sharon Begley: Skeptics Think They're Intellectually Superior

Sharon Begley, the Newsweek science writer, thinks she not only understands why people believe in the paranormal, she also thinks she understands why skeptics disbelieve. Believers in the paranormal believe because of brain wiring, but skeptics disbelieve because it makes us feel intellectually superior to believers. She has some good evidence for the former claim from neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, but she seems to have pulled the latter claim out of her ass. She provides no evidence for it.

"It takes effort to resist the allure of belief," writes Begley, "with its promise of fellowship, community and comfort in the face of mortality and a pointless, uncaring universe. There must be compensating rewards." Sure, if you say so, Sharon. And what might these rewards be? "One such compensation, it is fair to say, is a feeling of intellectual superiority. It is rewarding to look at the vast hordes of believers, conclude that they are idiots and delight in the fact that you aren't."

Well, I guess if Sharon says it is fair to say it, then it must be fair to say it. But really, what evidence does she have for the claim? She provides none because there is none. She's providing her opinion, based not on personal experience, but on speculation. I can tell you, Sharon, from personal experience that this skeptic does not feel intellectually superior to believers. Also, I'm not aware of needing any compensation for disbelieving rather than believing. I used to believe in both the supernatural and the paranormal. Actually, I think I felt a bit intellectually superior when I had those beliefs. I felt sorry for the morons who didn't grasp the truth.

Maybe I'm being too harsh. After all, Begley did have the experience of speaking at the Amazing Meeting last June in Las Vegas. She wrote about her experience on her blog. There she took Penn Jillette as her model skeptic, described him in unflattering terms, and described skeptics as being on a "debunking crusade." That's how she sees us, I guess. I might call it a "critical thinking campaign," but I'm a participant and probably don't understand what I'm doing as well as a journalist for Newsweek would. Maybe Begley's personal experience with the few skeptics she met at the Amazing Meeting, combined with her journalist's eye at observing the behavior of those in attendance, led her to the conclusion that skeptics need compensation for their lack of belief in weird things. Maybe some part of her brain then determined her to conclude that the compensation is a feeling of intellectual superiority. Anyway, I think she's wrong.

I've probably met and associated with many more skeptics than Begley has over the past twenty years or so. I've met only a few who think believers in the paranormal are universally stupid. Of all the major skeptical websites and podcasts, only one (that I know of) features a skeptic who regularly indicates that she thinks believers are stupid. The person who most loudly proclaims that skeptics think believers are intellectually inferior to skeptics is Dean Radin, a believer and a scientist. In his book The Conscious Universe, he shows his resentment of skeptical critics by devoting an entire chapter to trying to demonstrate that skeptics suffer from various psychological pathologies that prevent us from seeing that the evidence overwhelmingly supports belief in telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, and various other forms of woo.

Here is why I don't feel intellectually superior to believers. Personal experience indicates no significant difference in intelligence between skeptics and believers in general. Furthermore, I've studied a bit about the psychology of belief and have found that there is no correlation between low intelligence and belief in the paranormal or high intelligence and rejection of the paranormal. In fact, intelligence is not a key indicator as to whether someone believes in the paranormal or is a skeptic. But there may be some connection between intelligence and persistent belief in the paranormal. Here is what I wrote in my article on "hidden persuaders":

Many skeptics have noted that the hidden persuaders sometimes seem to affect people in proportion to their intelligence: the smarter one is the easier it is to develop false beliefs. There are several reasons for this: (1) the hidden persuaders affect everybody to some degree; (2) the smarter one is the easier it is to see patterns, fit data to a hypothesis, and draw inferences; (3) the smarter one is the easier it is to rationalize, i.e., explain away strong evidence contrary to one's belief; and (4) smart people are often arrogant and incorrectly think that they cannot be deceived by others, the data, or themselves.

I certainly don't feel intellectually superior to, say, Brian Josephson. I do wonder how a genius like Josephson could give up serious physics and concern himself with such things as telepathy and homeopathy for the last thirty years or so. I also am filled with wonder that Isaac Newton would give up serious physics early in his life and devote substantial time to learning Hebrew so he could read the Old Testament in the original. But I certainly don't think either Josephson or Newton can be called stupid, any more than I think Michelangelo was stupid for illustrating Bible stories on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. And I have no illusions about being on par with any of these geniuses intellectually.

Begley understands that the brain drives us toward beliefs in the paranormal and supernatural. The brain drives us toward beliefs that are comfortable and self-satisfying, not necessarily toward what is true. That's been known for a long time. No scoop there. Science developed a number of techniques that ward off self-deception and error, not because scientists think they are intellectually superior to non-scientists, but because they have a strong desire to discover the truth about the world we live in. Skeptics want to get to the truth, too. In my experience, believers, for the most part, also want to get to the truth. Many skeptics understand the psychological factors that drive people to believe in the paranormal and the supernatural, but that does not necessarily make us feel intellectually superior. Intellect has nothing to do with it. Many true believers, such as Dean Radin, also understand these psychological processes.

Another error Begley makes is in taking the word of one skeptic as if he could speak for all of us.

Another [compensation] is that skeptics believe, or at least hope, that they can achieve at least one thing that believers seek, but without abandoning their principles. Skeptics, no less than believers, think it would be wonderful if we could speak to dead loved ones, or if we ourselves never died. But skeptics instead "seek immortality through our … lasting achievements," [Michael] Shermer explains. "We, too, hope that our wishes for eternity might be fulfilled." Too bad that as they fight the good fight for rationality, their most powerful opponent is nothing less than the human brain.

Not all skeptics are going to agree with Shermer. I for one do not seek immortality through my achievements or in any other way. I have no interest in immortality or eternity. I wouldn't mind talking to dead loved ones, but I think about it only when someone else brings it up. Furthermore, most skeptics understandcertainly Shermer does, because he has written extensively about itthat irrationality is hardwired in the human brain. So, you don't have a scoop there, either, Sharon. Sorry.

The paranormal and the supernatural may be natural to most brains, but magical thinking is something we should try to overcome, not dignify, by calling it "natural," as if that bestowed some sort of goodness on it. Critical thinking is unnatural. Unlike magical thinking, critical thinking shouldn't need to be defended or justified. Should Steve Salerno need to justify exposing self-help gurus in order to teach people how to think for themselves? Should Stephen Barrett or Wally Sampson have to justify exposing medical charlatans in order to teach people to use their critical thinking skills when seeking medical advice? Should Ben Radford or Joe Nickel have to justify exposing phony psychics in order to teach people, especially people in law enforcement, to think critically about evidence, inference, and argumentation? Does Ray Hyman really need to justify his reviews of studies in parapsychology? Does Ray or any other psychologist who has written about cognitive, affective, or perceptual biases need to justify their work? Does Randi have to justify exposing these biases at work in certain scientists and their labs? Begley trivializes some important scientific work by calling it "debunking." Does she consider Poincaré a debunker because he showed that certain mathematical proofs are impossible?

I don't feel superior in any way because of my disbeliefs, but I do wonder why intelligent people aren't persuaded by the evidence that the probability of any given paranormal or supernatural claim being true is near zero. I agree with Begley that the persistence in such beliefs probably has something to do with brain states, but I have no reason to believe it has anything to do with intelligence. It has to do with a host of hidden persuaders, none of which correlate directly with intelligence.

I must admit, though, that at this moment I am feeling intellectually superior to Begley, but I realize that this feeling is unjustified and based on little more than my negative reaction to her stupid comments about skeptics.

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