Floating in a Fantasy World

Generation Xers have been raised in an era of unprecedented achievements, yet many are rejecting science and embracing the paranormal

Matt Nisbet

AUGUST 9, 1999

Mom warned me about strangers, but never about Reiki masters. One night early this summer, packed in with a crowd of fellow 20-somethings on Chippewa Street, I struck up a conversation with a bright, attractive member of Generation X. To my surprise, when I asked about her career aspirations, she told me she was training to be a master of Reiki, the Eastern mystical practice of healing through the laying on of hands.

Yes, she was serious. As I asked more about her "art," she began to point out my chakras, the strong energy channels in my body, and to assess my chi, my life energy force. Playing along, I told her that I was suffering from an old soccer injury in my leg, and she raised her hands, holding her palms just inches from the injury. "It should begin to feel warm," she said.

Right. Fun conversation, but not something I could take seriously. Of course, it wasn't the first time I had encountered uncritical belief in the ultra-extraordinary among my age group. In fact, I've come to expect it among Generation X, the demographic of Americans born roughly between 1965 and 1976.

One friend daydreams about witchcraft; another once told me I could cure a stomach ache through reflexology -- healing applied through the rubbing of my feet. Other friends follow the mystical advice of Deepak Chopra or Andrew Weil, while still others offer tarot card readings, order homeopathy kits, wear "powerful" amulets or consult a "psychic."

Guys at the gym swear by a host of scientifically unproven, sometimes dangerous "get big, get strong" nutritional supplements, while others experiment with the latest hair-growth treatments. Several friends have lost time and money on various multilevel marketing schemes, others surf the Web in search of UFO and government conspiraciesm, while some still get excited over decades-old Bruce Lee legends.

Getting a handle on the strength of belief in the paranormal is difficult, but perhaps the most accurate way is through public opinion polls. A 1996 Gallup Poll indicates that Americans ages 18 to 29 are significantly more superstitious and hold greater belief in a number of paranormal claims than other Americans.

The poll results are troubling, but belief in particular claims of the New Age or the paranormal are just symptoms of greater underlying problems. These beliefs manifest themselves in part because among many people my age there is a clear disdain for science and scientific thinking while there is strong faith in the transcendental and superstitious.

Generation X is not alone in these kinds of attitudes. Scientific literacy, commonly defined as an understanding of the scientific method and of how to weigh and assess evidence, hovers at just 5 percent among the general public.

But Americans in their 20s should be different from older generations. They have been raised in an era of unprecedented scientific and technological advancement. They have come of age during the information revolution, the mapping of the human genome, breakthroughs in organ and limb transplants, the development of miracle drugs, routine flights of the space shuttle, the landing of Mars Pathfinder and the images of the Hubble telescope.

The achievements of science hurtle forward, dramatically changing the future. As the next generation of decision-makers, Generation X faces increasingly complex policy choices ranging from the environment to health care to the economy. Correct choices in these matters will require an appreciation and knowledge of science and critical thinking. If we lack these abilities, then we risk making disastrous choices.

Psychologists, anthropologists and philosophers have long grappled with the nature of belief in the supernatural and strategized about widespread public aversion to science. Commonly proposed ideas include the notion that the mind is wired for belief, that belief is somehow wrapped up in human evolution and that there is an innate human willingness to believe.

It often takes decades of education and training before an individual can recognize his or her own propensity for non-logical and non-scientific thinking. So strong is the human inclination toward wishful and transcendental thinking that the pure critical thinker is extremely rare, if not non-existent.

Thus the challenge for 20-somethings today is immense. Though they have grown up and live in a scientific and technological world, human nature works against total acceptance of their surroundings. Yet it gets tougher for Generation X. Beyond just plain old irrational thinking, cultural forces peculiar to the late 1990s are working to multiply the effect. These cultural forces include the academic doctrine of post-modernism, the social and cultural dominance of a sensational media, and the extreme financial and job-market pressures placed on college students.

All things are relative

Imagine for a minute that your boss asks a newly hired accountant, a fresh-faced graduate of the fictitious University of Post-Modernism, to total earnings for the business quarter. The new accountant smiles and says, "Since all of reality is arbitrary, would you like me to calculate earnings using standard math, or a new math I've derived from an ancient and exotic culture?"

Absurd, right? Not in many parts of academia, and not in many undergraduate courses where the movement of post-modernism prevails. Post-modernism espouses that reality is merely a construct of the mind, differing across individuals based on language, political circumstance and culture.

The back cover of a book I discovered in the "cultural studies" section of Barnes and Noble aptly summarizes the troubling premise of post-modernism. "Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences" by Pauline Marie Rosenaum declares that "Post-modernism offers a revolutionary approach to society: In questioning the validity of modern science and the notion of objective knowledge, this movement discards history, rejects humanism and resists any truth claims."

In post-modernism, there are no "objective truths," so almost all ideas or practices are valid and relative to circumstance. Therefore, the mystical machinations of a tribal shaman, calling upon the gods and spirits in rituals to heal the sick, are impervious to scientific examination and verification. In the minds of the shaman and the tribal members, the mysticism is real. These days, all things exotic -- from acupuncture to coffee enemas -- are cool and valid, no questions asked.

As the saying goes, it is important to keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out. This past Halloween I encountered a few loose collegiate brains along with an extreme overtolerance for exotic notions during an appearance I made on a local television program to present a skeptical view of ghosts and UFOs. One student in the studio audience asserted that "other cultures" were open to a "sixth sense" that allowed them to perceive and accept psychic ability and aliens. Another asked whether I had ever considered that UFOs were from another dimension. Wow!

Post-modernism is essentially useless in the real world. It is intellectual bubble gum. Post-modernism tastes great, but lacks substance, and often blows up in your face. In order to build working cars and computers, accurately calculate earnings or taxes, decide on effective health care, buy legitimate consumer products or successfully conduct a whole host of life activities, claims must be tested, verified and empirically evaluated.

A decade spent watching TV

Americans in their 20s live in a media-dominated society. Generation X has watched television from infancy to adulthood. On average, they watch four hours or more of television a day, an astounding statistic that over a lifetime adds up to 10 years spent in front of the television set. For teen-agers, television has radically changed behavior. According to one survey, they spend 1,500 hours a year watching television, while only 600 hours a year in school, and 33 hours a year in conversation with their parents.

Programming has a strong influence on beliefs and attitudes. From news reporting to dramas, television is overrun by presentations that sensationalize the paranormal and give science little credit. Network news magazines typically profile paranormal claims ranging from miracles to psychics without providing a critical, scientific perspective. Local newscasts are even worse.

Other programs, such as "Unsolved Mysteries," "Sightings" and "Psi-Factor" offer vivid recreations of the events surrounding the paranormal claim with little or no balance offered. Influential talk shows like "Oprah" and "Larry King Live" frequently give forums to spiritualists and psychics.

Top-rated TV and film dramatizations often center on transcendental or paranormal themes. Examples include "Poltergeist," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "The X-Files," "Independence Day," "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," "Touched by An Angel," "What Dreams May Come," "Practical Magic" and "Sabrina, The Teenage Witch."

Not only is the paranormal championed in these dramas, but science is shown in a negative light. Scientists are portrayed as evil, mad and dangerous; science is depicted as useless in solving problems; and scientific thinking or skepticism is often shown as a handicap in resolving the plot.

Studies conducted over the last several years show a tentative link between media presentations and the way audiences think about paranormal claims. Other studies show that habitual viewers of entertainment television are more likely than infrequent viewers to hold negative opinions about science and positive opinions about pseudoscience. They are also more likely to believe that science is dangerous, that scientists are odd and peculiar people, and that a career in science is undesirable.

Show Me the Money!

Financial pressure on students is astounding. In order to pay for college, 50 percent of students are employed, working an average of 25 hours per week. They are also borrowing heavily. According to the American Council on Education, in 1995-96, 50 percent of students graduating from a four-year bachelor program had borrowed money from the federal government. The average debt for a graduate at a public institution was $ 12,000 and at a private institution was $ 14,000. These figures do not include loans taken from private lending institutions or credit-card debt.

This high financial burden has eaten away at the primary importance placed on learning and replaced it with a desperate end-results student culture that devalues the pursuit of knowledge, and hollers, "Show me the money!" In a poll from the Chronicle of Higher Education, 77 percent of incoming 1999 freshmen indicated the opportunity to get a better job as very important in deciding to go to college, and 75 percent cited the ability to make more money. Considerably less, 62 percent, noted the opportunity to gain a general education and the appreciation of ideas.

Based on the prevailing educational values, it is not surprising that chosen majors are geared heavily toward professional and financial success, with fields of study like the sciences or social sciences often overlooked. Business, education and professional or preprofessional degrees are by far the most popular majors, with far fewer freshman choosing engineering, the physical sciences, biological sciences or social sciences.

Though business, education and professional degrees are noble pursuits, unless universities and colleges require a rigorous core curriculum, students in these fields only receive the most basic introductions to the sciences, the social sciences or the humanities. With heavy financial burdens, and vocational pursuits valued over learning or the acquisition of knowledge, it is unlikely that an undergraduate student will have the time or the intellectual curiosity to seek out courses that will impart scientific knowledge or critical thinking skills.

The likely consequence is that universities are at risk of turning out large numbers of highly skilled graduates who are well suited to the workplace but lack an appreciation and understanding of science along with the critical thinking skills necessary to sort through the deluge of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. If graduates lack the skills to think critically about ghosts or UFOS, how are they going to make careful choices as voters or consumers?

Antidote: Thinking about thinking

It was not your typical classroom scene this past spring at the University at Buffalo. Students and their professor had set about to bend 10-inch iron nails using the power of their minds. Half the students in the class stood with their eyes closed, faces focused in consternation, their hands firmly gripping the thick nails. The others stood beside them, forcibly rubbing the middle of the nail.

After a few moments, the professor asked one student to try a different nail, replacing the one already in the student's hands. As the whole class this time trained their "mental energy" on the single nail, the professor rubbed the nail with his index finger, and as he slowly turned it in the student's hand, a remarkable two-inch bend was revealed. Was the demonstration proof of psychic ability or magician's sleight-of-hand?

The exercise was part of "Scientific Inquiry: Science and the Paranormal," an honors seminar offered to 25 freshmen and sophomores. Students in the class delved into a range of subjects not typical of Psychology or Biology 101. Four students explored local ghost hauntings. Others examined the mysterious practice of hypnosis, or monsters such as zombies, werewolves and vampires. Another group tracked down the origins of common urban legends.

The course was designed to encourage students to go beyond knowledge absorption and fact filing, and into thinking about thinking. Students were taught ways to evaluate and test arguments, familiarized with the principles of the scientific method and the work of scientists, and provided psychological or social reasons why people might believe a claim even though the arguments in support might be false.

Though still novel, courses in critical thinking are offered as electives across the country. At Harvard University, Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, anthropologist Stephen Jay Gould and philosopher Robert Nozick offer a course titled "Thinking About Thinking." Astronomer Carl Sagan taught a similar course to Cornell undergraduates. Educators hope that courses in critical thinking might serve as an antidote to the human propensity toward credulity, and as countermeasures to forces like the media, post-modernism and vocation-centered education.

Television and the World Wide Web have become our dominant sources of information on culture, politics, science, relationships, religion, health, sex, education and values. "Growing up digital" means students need to be taught how to "read the media," develop important skills in sorting through the information, and build shields against potentially harmful media messages.

On another front, Nobel laureate Leon Lederman proposes that fostering greater scientific understanding and appreciation among high school students may be as simple as changing the sequence of science courses. He favors a "physics first" curriculum where freshmen begin high school by taking physics, followed by chemistry and then biology. Students would learn the concepts of matter and energy before taking chemistry, and have knowledge of biochemistry before reaching biology.

In schools where "physics first" has been put in place, more students are sticking with science, resulting in dramatic increases in those electing to continue into advance placement courses.

Although new education efforts will mostly affect future generations of Americans, it is not too late for Generation X. There needs to be a collective wake-up call. 20-somethings need to recapture their culture, liberating it from commercially driven nonsense that hawks amulets, healing draughts and New Age practices. They need to turn their attention away from media products that exploit medieval stories of aliens, angels and transcendental powers.

However, if Generation X is going to re-establish a culture of intellect and learning, something must be done to alleviate the tremendous financial burdens placed on students. Generation X can either continue to float off into fantasy, or embrace science and reason. The choice will radically shape the future of American society.

About the Author

Amherst native Matt Nisbet, 24, writes for the locally based Skeptical Inquirer, The Magazine for Science and Reason, and is a graduate student at Cornell University.