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Why Do People Believe in Fantasies?

Comment

We human beings sure are gullible. Polls report that 27 percent of Americans believe in ghosts, and 25 percent in astrology. Others believe mediums, fortunetellers, faith healers and assorted magical phenomena.

I'd think the astrologers or the psychics or the ghost hunters would be eager to prove they were for real. Not only would they convince skeptics, they'd make a million dollars.

That's what James Randi, the magician, author and debunker of bogus claims, will pay anyone who can prove he or she actually has an ability that can't be explained by science.

"All people have to do is make a claim, come to us, fill out the form, arrange a protocol, and then we have somebody else do the test," Randi says. He won't do the test himself, he says, because when psychics failed in the past, they claimed that Randi put out "evil vibrations" to thwart their powers.

Has anyone taken up the challenge?

"We've done over 200 of them all over the world."

These days, TV is filled with commercials that claim that a bracelet will make people stronger. One shows people who are easily pulled over when they're not wearing the bracelet, but who withstand the pulling when wearing one.

I asked Randi the secret of this apparently sincere demonstration of the power of the bracelet. Apparently, when the subject wears the bracelet, the demonstrator covertly props him up. But even the test subject doesn't notice.

Why do so many people believe in such "magic"?

"They want magic answers." Also, the media "promote interest and belief in these things because sponsors love it. It sells products."

I have been surprised over the years, reporting on people who sell breast enlargers, baldness cures and similar nonsense, that many were not just cheats. They had come to believe that their stuff worked. They saw what they wanted to see. Randi is skeptical that the big-name psychics actually believe.

"They have to know what they're doing," he says.

"Sylvia Browne alone gets $750 for a 20-minute conversation over the telephone, and she's booked up for the next two years. Now, that's a pretty good business."

She doesn't really believe she has a gift?

"I don't think so. Because when ... she comes up to something which is absolutely wrong ... she makes all kinds of excuses right away. You have to be quick-thinking in order to do that."

If she really did believe, I'd think she'd volunteer for Randi's million-dollar challenge.

"I'm amazed (that) there isn't a line of people saying, 'I want the million,'" he told me. "A million dollar prize. It's there. Come get it."

It's good that Randi and occasional TV reporters expose the sellers of such "magic." But after I did that for 25 years, I concluded that the harm done by those hucksters is minor compared to the scams perpetuated by politicians.

They promise fiscal responsibility. Then they spend like drunken sailors.

They promise to cure poverty. Then their programs make it worse.

They promise to create jobs. But then they make life so complex and unpredictable that entrepreneurs are afraid to create jobs.

Almost none of their promises come true. But few people approach government with the skepticism it deserves.

Whether you believe in God — or psychics, or global warming — that's your business. I may think you're stupid, but if you waste your money on, say, a "strength" bracelet, you only harm yourself.

But being gullible about government hurts everyone. Government is force. When it sells us bunk, we have to pay even if we don't believe in or want it. If we don't pay up, men with guns will make sure we do.

It's good to be skeptical. It's really good to be skeptical about government.

John Stossel is host of "Stossel" on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of "Give Me a Break" and of "Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity." To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at <a href="http://www.johnstossel.com" <http://www.johnstossel.com>>johnstossel.com</a>. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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Comments

22 Comments | Post Comment
Around 90% of humanity worldwide does believe in God in one form or another, Stossel. Is it a mass delusion, or do they know something you don't?
Comment: #1
Posted by: Matt
Tue Dec 14, 2010 11:02 PM
Yeah, Matt, and 1000 years ago everybody thought the Earth was flat. The number of people who believe in something is far from evidence.
Comment: #2
Posted by: johnnyb
Wed Dec 15, 2010 1:00 PM
LOL @ Matt, 90+% of humanity also used to believe the world was flat!
Comment: #3
Posted by: Jim
Wed Dec 15, 2010 1:09 PM
I'll take the million pound test. It's got to be worth a go. I live in London though.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Jim
Wed Dec 15, 2010 1:12 PM
Great column - our society needs a serious injection of skepticism and critical thought. Far too much money is wasted on bogus projects. Conspiracy theorists cash in on fear mongering. Even the big hitters like Sylvia Browne won't take Randi's million dollar challenge, because they know they'd finally be exposed for the frauds they are. I like this site, and www.relativelyinteresting.com, which also servers to promote science and skepticism.

Keep up the great work!
Comment: #5
Posted by: Will
Wed Dec 15, 2010 1:23 PM
Fantasy #1: The belief all entrepreneurs are "afraid to create jobs". Fact: entrepreneurs want to make money for themselves, jobs are tangential.

Fantasy #2: Fiscal responsibility is attainable. History tells us that no politician is going to raise taxes or cut spending. The belief in that is as bogus as believing in a psychic. Taxes and spending are here to stay. The issue is WHAT do you want your money spent on.

Fantasy #3: People aren't skeptical about government. Of course people are skeptical. But they are also terrific complainers. They want all the benefits of a free country, they just don't want to pay for it. They believe they could do a better job, but do absolutely nothing to actually improve it.

I think Mr. Stossle needs to do some critical thinking rather than pointing fingers. Oh yeah, he makes a living selling this tripe. Apparently it's my fantasy he'd overcome his confirmation biases.
Comment: #6
Posted by: Derek
Wed Dec 15, 2010 1:47 PM
Re: Matt: mass delusion
Comment: #7
Posted by: F. Andy Seidl
Wed Dec 15, 2010 2:02 PM
Re: Mattthe figure is way lower than 90% in reality... there are many who go along with the farce of religion because of social or family pressure , as to not be the odd one out or face persecution. Yes it is "mass delusion"
Comment: #8
Posted by: bart17
Wed Dec 15, 2010 3:07 PM
Re: Matt
It's mass delusion. As Randi would say: "No amount of belief makes something a fact.
Comment: #9
Posted by: LuisWu
Wed Dec 15, 2010 4:32 PM
As I type this, the banner ad on the page reads: "Live Psychic Readings, 3 free minutes, TRY IT NOW!"
A woman named Kim Tinkham died recently from breast cancer because she chose quackery instead of effective therapy--you might have seen her on Oprah discussing with the credulous host how positive thinking could not only bring you riches (The Secret!) but could ensure your health and conquer disease.
Loonies abound. I think the antivaccine wackos who deny conclusive scientific evidence are the worst, but that's likely because I have a child, but not breast cancer. Birthers, truthers, and people who believe that they can talk to the dead don't really bother me, but encouraging people to avoid one of the greatest medical advances in history--well, that's just wacky. You might be interested in reading "The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear" by Seth Mnookin if you'd like to understand a good example of how ordinary people completely misunderstand evidence and go deep into the woo.
Comment: #10
Posted by: ben
Wed Dec 15, 2010 4:34 PM
As I type this, the banner ad on the page reads: "Live Psychic Readings, 3 free minutes, TRY IT NOW!"
A woman named Kim Tinkham died recently from breast cancer because she chose quackery instead of effective therapy--you might have seen her on Oprah discussing with the credulous host how positive thinking could not only bring you riches (The Secret!) but could ensure your health and conquer disease.
Loonies abound. I think the antivaccine wackos who deny conclusive scientific evidence are the worst, but that's likely because I have a child, but not breast cancer. Birthers, truthers, and people who believe that they can talk to the dead don't really bother me, but encouraging people to avoid one of the greatest medical advances in history--well, that's just wacky. You might be interested in reading "The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear" by Seth Mnookin if you'd like to understand a good example of how ordinary people completely misunderstand evidence and go deep into the woo.
Comment: #11
Posted by: ben
Wed Dec 15, 2010 4:36 PM
"Whether you believe in God or psychics, or global warming that's your business. I may think you're stupid, but if you waste your money on, say, a "strength" bracelet, you only harm yourself."--John Stossel
So Stossel conflates two paranormal claims, one easily testable claim that anyone who knows the balance tricks used to support the claim can debunk, and a genuine scientific consensus (once you leave the Cato Institute.) Well, I suppose almost everyone has a blind spot.

But really, political ideology, in this case it's libertarianism, is no way to determine that the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists on global warming are not correct. His lesson in political gullibility becomes laughable when Stossel himself comes to a wrong conclusion about science, not based on the science, but based on the political ideology he subscribes to. Shermer has backed off based on the science. Penn and Teller have backed off based on the science, but not Stossel. Pity... Perhaps I should offer him the same judgment that he is offering me. I may think he's stupid to deny global warming in the face of so much science that says he's wrong. But that's his business...

The stuff about Randi was good.
Comment: #12
Posted by: David Gluck
Wed Dec 15, 2010 5:56 PM
Hell, everyone knows we get the politicians we deserve. Else we wouldn't vote for them, would we?

Everyone has an opinion, but how many are willing to stand up and have their opinion tested?

My opinion? People conflate safety with conservatism. Real conservatism sometimes takes risks to preserve that which is truly worth conserving. These days, everyone seems to be enraptured with notions of false safety. Americans voted in a President with some "risky" ideas, but then got cold feet.

What's the bet that this trend won't see the triumph of racism in 2012, when Hilary is elected?
Comment: #13
Posted by: Michieux
Thu Dec 16, 2010 9:43 AM
Re: David Gluck
Stossel doesn't "deny" that the earth is warming. He says it is in his book. I think he is referring here to the alarmist claims being made by people who are using global warming as a political device. Fear sells.
Respectfully,
Robert
Comment: #14
Posted by: ClassicLiberal
Thu Dec 16, 2010 12:57 PM
Re: Derek
Re: Fantasy #1: Of course jobs are tangential. But it gets a little wordy for Stossel to say "entrepreneurs are afraid to take the risks that create the jobs"\."

Re: Fantasy #2: I disagree. Look at New Zealand's recent past away from socialism. And look at Margret Thatcher's UK. Our own federal taxes have been close to Zero for much of our country's history. We have veered off this fiscal responsibility in a very bad way since FDR. I agree that we are mired in tax-and-spend right now and that is terribly frustrating. Let's hope the pendulum starts to swing the other way, with examples like Greece and California so visible.

Re: Fantasy #3: Stossel doesn't say people aren't skeptical. He says they are gullible. And our politicians are the best sellers of bad ideas in the world.
Respectfully,
Robert
Comment: #15
Posted by: ClassicLiberal
Thu Dec 16, 2010 1:14 PM
Alright, I'll admit I'm a believer in God, and have been for my whole life. But I'm a logical person, and have often considered the sensibility of my faith. I'll share a few of my thoughts and let you consider them. Whether they convince you or not is none of my business.

The law of entropy falls flat without a god. This law states, in a simplistic definition, that objects or energy left unattended tend to a state of chaos and disorder. There is far too much perfection and order in this world/solar system/universe to conclude that it happened without attention.

Human DNA, relative to the rest of the animal kingdom, are virtual clones from one person to another, even across races and genders. Our DNA is far more precise and non-convoluted. Evolution would not have allowed such a small distribution. Scientists, in an attempt to explain the phenomenon, have theorized that a catastrophic event must have occurred relatively recently that eliminated all but a select few from whom the human race was reproduced. Perhaps a more sensible theory is a divine creation of man?

How did the Big Bang come about? Where did the matter come from? With the relatively recent discovery of anti-matter, and the ability to create matter (with its anti-matter) by focusing huge amounts of energy into a single point, more and more scientists are coming to believe that the Big Bang was precicely that, an incomprehensible (divine) amount of energy focused at that one point. Even Steven Hawking has stated that the Big Bang makes no sense without a God.

The Big Bang and evolution do not disprove the existence of a god. It may contradict some of the more popularly held beliefs as to the story of creation, or the personal traits of God. But this should surprise no one considering the different beliefs between religions already. Not everyone can be right. But in fact, as more evidence comes to light, it makes the existence of one more and more plausible.

My 2c, fwiw.
Comment: #16
Posted by: MarkP
Thu Dec 16, 2010 6:59 PM
MAN has divised many religions...not God. Many interpretations, many experiences. I am of no religion. I am a spiritual being. We all are regardless whether you believe or not. I don't believe everything written in the Bible. After all God didn't write it. It was written by people with different experiences. When a person can't see, then listen, when a person can't listen, then feel. There's nothing logical in this physical world about God. The entire connection is spiritual. This connection is very personal and unique as God intended. You're a Thinker. You might want to consider becoming a Knower. Choice is the one thing God gave us freely. The ultimate thinking outside of the box! A person doesn't have to believe in God, but it will make it easier and less confusing when they pass thru to the other side. My mother and my husband have had experiences with spirit. Me...well, I've only witnessed seeing a UFO. Just because you haven't seen a UFO doesn't mean they don't exist. Wishing you a faithful day!
Comment: #17
Posted by: Charlotte Rhoades
Fri Dec 17, 2010 4:24 AM
About God vs Atheism...

These arguments against God always miss the point. And the Christian responses miss the point as well.

No interviewer I have ever heard has ever challenged an Atheist to prove that God does NOT exist. I would think, considering the consequences if they turn out to be wrong, they would be as diligent in requiring proof of the "No God" theory as they are in requiring proof that God does exist. But every argument I have ever heard from an atheist is a theological argument, not a scientific proof. They start with the premise, "If God really existed,...." followed by whatever they don't like about the world, or about Christians. For instance, if God really existed, why does he permit evil to prosper? Why are some Christians evil? Why doesn't He appear before me to prove Himself? These are all questions about the nature of God, his will, and his motivation, not arguments about his existence. They usually make incorrect assumptions, which have nothing to do with proof of existence or non-existence. Or they make assumptions about what Christians believe about their God, which are also often far off the mark. Or they make incorrect assumptions about how the Bible should be interpreted. You cannot use theological arguments to prove the existence or non-existence of God

The next logical step for the interviewer is to challenge those arguments as being what they are, and press for the scientific proof. It never happens.

The other argument they use is the absence of proof theory. But that is faulty and unscientific logic. Absence of proof is not in and of itself proof. Did atoms not exist before we had the technology to detect them? Perhaps we cannot prove God yet because we don't have the right technology yet. Perhaps, if God exists, he can prevent us from developing that technology, in order that we act out of faith and love, rather than cold hard data. And I have never heard an interviewer challenge an atheist on this point either.

Did atoms not exist before we had the technology to detect them? Perhaps we cannot prove God yet because we don't have the right technology yet. Perhaps, if God exists, he can prevent us from developing that technology, in order that we act out of faith and love, rather than cold hard data.

As a Christian, I am not shy about admitting that I cannot prove to anyone else that God exists. But my life is better because I believe and that is enough for me. The consequences if I turn out to be wrong are not significant. So I was wrong. Big deal.

I appreciate Michael Shermer's work in debunking snake oil. But if he wants an experiment to test the God theory, perhaps he should conduct one of his own. Take a sample of non-believers, and he and they should spend one year trying to believe in God, acting as though they believe, studying the Bible with other believers, and see what their lives are like at the end of the year. But in the world of real science, it still wouldn't prove whether God exists, it would only provide data about how people's lives are changed when they believe in him.

I understand agnosticism. But I am very annoyed by the arrogance of those Atheists who profess that their leap of faith is intellectually superior to my own. It is still a statement of faith, impossible for either side to prove. If I'm wrong, no harm, no foul. In the meantime, my life is blessed. What benefit can they claim? That they were right? By the time we get our ultimate proof, none of us are around to share it with the living.
Comment: #18
Posted by: Liz Gerdes
Fri Dec 17, 2010 1:33 PM
As a Christian theist, I was very troubled by the arguments posed by Michael Shermer in his recent visit to Stossel's show. The have been refuted again and again, but apparently he hasn't been paying attention. So... I'll share a few thoughts.

Shermer Point One: "There are many different beliefs. Our beliefs are determined by where we live."
How can a thinking person accept such an argument? This is nothing more than saying, "All believers just accept whatever they are taught." Really? After 40 years of thought, I sure don't accept everything I was taught -- either by young earth creationists like Henry Morris, or by atheistic biologists like Richard Dawkins. Neither do most other people. We change our views as we gather information. This is as true of science as it is of theology.
If God exists, we would expect people to have different beliefs about God, just as they do about everything else. Put differently, can the fact that people seem to have a spiritual nature (or at least hunger) be an argument *against* God's existence? Wouldn't that seem to support belief in a transcendent Creator?
Moreover, Shermer neglects the wide *agreement* among theistic faiths about God's nature -- Powerful, Wise, Loving, the Creator of the universe, etc. This agreement does not just exist between the three big monotheistic faiths of today. It underlies many belief systems all around the world, from those of Plato and Socrates to the Inca's Viracocha. God is understood to be the Creator.

I'm skipping point two, which I can't remember.

Shermer point three: "There is evil and suffering in the world. If God was good and powerful, God wouldn't allow this; and I won't accept an answer that says we can't figure out all of God's purposes" (or limitations, I suppose). Neither Mr. Shermer nor anyone else knows what the universe is made out of. Right now, it seems that, if God is taken to be the Creator of the universe, God chose to make it out of one dimensional loops of energy vibrating in 11 dimensions of space/time; but we don't know that for sure. If we did, who really understands it!?
Yet on the subject of evil and suffering, Mr. Shermer wants to have a nice, simple answer. Hmmmmm... Did I read about this kind of thing somewhere before? Was there another fellow who was upset about injustice and suffering the world? did he also want answers from God? Was he able to explain basic natural phenomena? Shermer might not believe the Bible to be inspired, but he is certainly creating an accurate update of the arguments made by at least one very famous character. Good Job, Michael!
Seriously, is it possible for God himself to be placed in a situation where he must choose between various bad options and choose the "least bad"? Well, Christians, at least must believe something like this. Otherwise, what are we to make of the crucifixion?
Meanwhile, if material, rather than personality, is the fundamental basis for the existence of the universe, what *rational* basis can Mr. Shermer (or anyone else) provide for their objections to what they call "evil" and what they call "suffering"? But just as Shermer has disallowed certain *answers* he doesn't like, I'm sure he would also disallow this *question*. After all, he might say, good and evil are obvious to everyone with common sense! Or he might say we can arrive at them through reason.

Stalin and Pol Pot had their own versions of common sense and reason. So did Robespierre, who presided over his own "Age of Reason" in France. That's what he called it, but we call it the Reign of Terror. It featured the invention of the guillotine to more humanely behead all the people who needed to be killed in the name of Reason, including Robespierre himself, eventually. That's a pretty fitting metaphor for atheism in both history and philosophy. After creating unparalleled carnage, it ends up cutting off its own head -- all in the name of reason.


Stossel Question: John said he doesn't sense God's presence. He asks, "Is something wrong with me?" The answer, of course, is "yes". Something is wrong with everyone. I would be very surprised if Mr. Stossel would claim that *nothing* is wrong with him.
But that is very strange! Here is a planet inhabited by individuals who don't approve of their *own behavior*. How do they know they are misbehaving? Why do they misbehave? How do the materialist explanations for this compare to the theistic answers?

Well, I can see the theists in this discussion seem to be replying quite effectively to the skeptics, so I am not nearly as concerned as before.

Meanwhile, I love the show!

Next time a debater like Shermer is on the show, why not have a philosopher on the other side, rather than a friendly priest. How about somebody like Ravi Zacharias, Dallas Willard or Alvin Plantinga? I suspect Mr. Stossel has never heard of these men or read their books. Otherwise he might not put theism in the same category as astrology.

One more point: Both Stossel and Shermer asked, "Where is God?' Why doesn't he show himself?"
Of course, we Christians think he did just that. We even made a holiday about it.

Merry Christmas!

Mark
Comment: #19
Posted by: Mark
Sun Dec 19, 2010 7:20 PM
Re: Jim

I see. So just as Magellan sailed around the Earth and proved it was round, you have sailed all around the universe (and beyond its boundaries); and you have found that god does not exist.

Is there any point trying to reason with somebody who, scornfully, puts forward such an analogy?

Mark
Comment: #20
Posted by: Mark
Sun Dec 19, 2010 7:32 PM
Re: Jim
I'd rather believe in a God and find out there isn't one, then be a non-believer and be condemned if He finally does show up.
Comment: #21
Posted by: John Doe
Tue Dec 21, 2010 9:18 PM
The answer to the question: can people over-fantasize? is complicated. In a way, everybody over-fantasizes life, by turning it into a romantic story in their heads. But if everybody does this, then it can't be OVER fantasized, can it? There are always extremes, but for the most part, everybody fantasizes their lives because books have taught us to do so.
Comment: #22
Posted by: Carmella Borchers
Tue Oct 2, 2012 9:50 AM
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