Scientists wondering just how low faith in their field has fallen will get some uncomfortable answers in a study examining belief in Extrasensory Perception, recently published in the online journal Current Research in Social Psychology.
In the experiment, conducted by a University of Maryland research team led by sociologist Heather Ridolfo, 160 participants watched a short video in which an individual is remarkably successful at a card-guessing game. In fact, the film’s star was informed of the answers, but it appeared to the study participants that she was either extremely lucky or had some sort of sixth sense.
After viewing the video, participants completed a series of questions, including whether they believed in ESP and whether they thought the card-guesser they just saw was demonstrating that ability.
The participants were broken up into four groups. Those in Condition One were informed that 25 percent of the public believes in ESP, but the scientific community rejects the concept. Those in Condition Two were told that more than 90 percent of the public believes in ESP, but the scientific community considers it bogus.
Those in Condition Three were told that 25 percent of the public believes in ESP, and the scientific community is becoming more open to the idea. Those in Condition Four were informed that more than 90 percent of the public believes in ESP, and the scientific community is beginning to warm to the possibility it is real.
“We found relatively strong evidence that individuals are more likely to accept paranormal claims as true when they believe such claims have popular support,” the researchers write. However, “We found no effects indicating that science rejecting a claim led individuals to be less likely to believe the claim.
“In fact, when participants believed that science rejected a claim, they moved in the direction of being more likely to accept the clam as true. This finding ran counter to our expectations, but is consistent with findings that trust in science is decreasing.”
To put it another way: Those told ESP had widespread popular support were likely to express agreement with that consensus, regardless of the scientific consensus. But among those who were informed that only one-quarter of the population believed in the phenomenon, support was actually higher when science gave it a thumbs-down.
That collective gulp was from the climatologist community, which has every right to worry whether its warnings of the consequences of global warming are not only being tuned out, but actively discounted by a cynical public. Perhaps a study of paranormal beliefs is too specific to indicate a widespread distrust of lab-coated authority figures, but perhaps that’s precisely what it suggests.
“These findings may be due to individuals seeing paranormal belief as a matter of faith rather than evidence, and therefore reacting against science,” the researchers conclude. “Alternatively, perhaps endorsement from peers provides a stronger source of legitimacy for paranormal beliefs than authorization from a higher authority. Or the findings may result from a decreasing trust in the institution of science.”
If the latter interpretation is true, you don’t need ESP to foresee troubling times ahead.