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Invisible Beings, Psychic Horses, Alien Insects…Why Do We Believe This Stuff?

February 22, 2013

Skeptical Inquirer Explores Outlandish Beliefs and How We Reconcile Them

Invisible beings, horses that know their square roots, and alien bugs invading Denver—what makes so many people believe in these ludicrous ideas? The sharpest minds in science and skepticism confront the claims and phenomena that have us believing in that which is not there, and why we do it, all in the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

In the cover story, world-renowned investigator Joe Nickell and astronomer James McGaha explore humankind’s fascination with invisibility. When the difficult-to-explain occurs, the culprits have often been thought to be invisible beings, be they aliens, angels, ghosts, or entities from other dimensions. But as the authors remind us, “An invisible entity necessarily means an immaterial one, one that therefore can exist only as a product of the imagination.”

Existing in the imaginations of countless witnesses at the turn of the previous century was the notion that some remarkably talented horses could perform complex mathematics. Many are familiar with “Clever Hans,” the horse that was purported to understand and solve math problems through hoof stomps. But even after Hans was shown to be the product of a cunning trick, his example spawned less well-documented imitators. Stefano Vezzani looks back at the excitement over the Elberfield Horses, equine mathematicians that seemed to communicate psychically, that for a time stumped the experts.

In a more recent instance of people seeing what they want to see, Robert Sheaffer takes the modern media to task for the false drama around purported UFO sightings in Denver, UFOs that turned out to be nothing but insects flying past a camera lens – a fact easily discoverable, and yet stubbornly avoided by those reporting on the sightings. Writes Sheaffer, “This story is a serious contender for the stupidest news report of 2012.”

In hindsight, so many of these apparently paranormal phenomena seem absurd, yet even very intelligent people can be taken in and cling tenaciously to their false beliefs. James Walker explores this cognitive dissonance that exists in those who accept pseudoscience and the paranormal, as well as those who hold either mild or fervent religious beliefs. Writes Walker, “They become so invested in their beliefs that they will latch onto any explanation, no matter how far-fetched, that reinforces their beliefs to which they have surrendered so much.”

All this, plus contributions from such writers as Steven Novella, Benjamin Radford, Kendrick Frazier, and many more, all in the March-April edition of Skeptical Inquirer, available on newsstands now. For more information, visit http://www.csicop.org/si.

Skeptical Inquirer is the official journal of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), a nonprofit scientific and educational organization. CSI encourages the critical investigation of paranormal and fringe-science claims from a responsible, scientific point of view. Learn more about CSI and SI at http://www.csicop.org.