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How to think about weird things?

Shaun Vecera might have called the class he taught at the University of Utah "Hoaxbusters 101."

Instead, he gave it the much less ethereal name "Parapsychology and Skeptical Inquiry" and chose a textbook as straightforward as the class: "How to Think About Weird Things."As in crop circles, alien abductions, tarot cards, telekinesis and the Loch Ness Monster.

Not long ago scientists and academics watched with bemusement as people made wild claims about such other-worldly happenings.

Then a whole bunch of people started believing in them, and scholars realized critical think skills were rarer than Big Foot sightings.

"A lot of scientists have started to challenge all that because they realize with popular media being available as it is, a lot of these strange beliefs can take on a life of their own and cause misinformation out there," he said.

Vecera's class, which he taught spring quarter, is among several college courses around the country that scrutinize paranormal phenomena.

Texas Christian University has one, and so do Doane College in Nebraska, Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan, St. Mary's University in Maryland and the University of Oregon.

Most are taught by psychology professors such as Vecera, who has a cognitive psychology degree and does research in visual processing.

Vecera investigates why we pay attention to some things and ignore others, and how we recognize our own car in a parking lot or a face even though one face is pretty much like any other: two eyes, nose in the middle and a mouth below that.

What he knows for sure is this: The human brain is pretty good at fooling itself (see box).

"One thing we know about our perception is previous experience determines how we perceive the world," he said.

Take letters: "Letters are something we're familiar with. If you get ambiguous input that is somewhat like a letter, we will be more likely to perceive it as letters."

In the same way, someone who believes in UFOs and sees a soundless, strange light in the sky is much more likely to perceive it as an alien spacecraft.

Many people believe sensory perceptions are reliable, that what we think we see is what is really there, Vecera said.

The truth is making sense of the world is tricky given the way our brains process information and taint it with previous experiences and expectations.

"It's very easy for our vision to break down and make us see things that are not there or to see things in strange ways - like a ghost or extraterrestial spacecraft," he said.

Vecera's class covered the realm of strange occurrences, from Ouiji boards to ESP and crop circles, and the scientific principles and critical thinking skills those phenomena ought to conjure up.

So when students hear of something weird they'll remember that lack of evidence doesn't prove something true or Occam's Razor, which holds that the best explanation of an event is the simplest, using the fewest assumptions.

"We tried to figure out if the evidence for some of these things is really as good as people believe it is," he said. "It may not be as much fun because we don't get to jump to radical conclusions and all the things it might imply, but when you're in the search for knowledge, you must be conservative."

The students also took a stab at making their own dubious claims.

Each had to devise a hoax and write a paper explaining how they'd fool people. One student invented an herbal supplement and pitched it as an alternative medicine; another created a cult and devised ways to ensure followers' allegiance. One student posed as a channeler for ancient spirits, another dreamed up a way to haunt a house and one built a spacecraft, dangled it from a string and took pictures of it that were "quite convincing."

Vecera said most of the 15 students in his honors class, who came from such diverse fields as math, biology and physics, were fairly skeptical to begin with.

"That may have been self-selection, because I wrote the class description so it was clear I was skeptical about these things."

He plans to offer the class again next year and would like to see it attract more people who are undecided about weird things but don't know how to evaluate them. He thinks true believers in paranormal events are probably a lost cause.

And he's not surprised by the surge in such "squishy thinking," which he attributes to popularity of mass media offerings that blur fact and fiction. There are TV shows like "The X-Files" and movies such as "Contact," but also pseudo-news programs such as NBC's "Mysterious Origins."

"On top of that there is a declining interest in any sort of critical thinking on the part of the general public," he said.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

University of Utah Associate Professor Shaun Vecera says the human brain is pretty good at fooling itself. It fills in details - or distorts them - based on previous experiences and knowledge.

He uses this list of words to demonstrates that. Surrounding letters influence how you perceive the ambiguous letters or fill in missing information.

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Web sites

Here is a listing of some Web sites - both pro and con - on paranormal events that Shaun Vecera used in his class:

Skeptics:

- Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: (http://www.csicop.org)

- Skeptics Society Web: (http://www.skeptic.com)

- The Skeptics Dictionary & Guide for the New Millennium: (http://wheel.ucdavis.edu/(tilde)btcarrol/ skeptic/dictcont.html)

Believers:

- The Art Bell Officials Web Site: (http://www.artbell.com)

- Rob Brezsny's Real Astrology: (http://www.realastrology. com)

- Uri Geller's Interactive Psychic City: (http://www.urigeller.com)