By John Happs
An abridged version of a report that originally appeared in the Skeptic 7(2), 21-26 & 28, Winter 1987. At the time Dr Happs was with the Department of Science Education at the Western Australian College of Advanced Education, now Edith Cowan University..
It is apparent that even in well-educated Western communities many people are ready to believe almost any pseudo-scientific claim that is made through the media. Worse, they have little idea about what is acceptable scientific evidence. As a result, just when science has greatly increased our understanding of evolution, planetary formation, plate tectonics, radiometric dating, etc, almost anything goes.
Children and adolescents are especially vulnerable to media claims about alleged "mysteries" such as UFOs (Bainbridge 1978), the creation of the world (Godfrey 1983), the Bermuda Triangle (Kusche 1975) and the presence of mysterious monsters (Guenette and Guenette 1975, Snyder 1977). Primary and secondary students readily believe unsubstantiated claims such as ESP (Marks and Kammann 1980), metal bending by psychic power (Gardner 1981), astrology (Jerome 1977), psychic archaeology (Jones 1979) and water-divining (the focus of this article). So how informed are classroom teachers on such topics? How well can they answer questions about widely publicised claims about the paranormal?
In an attempt to find out, I surveyed the paranormal beliefs of trainee teachers at the Western Australian College of Advanced Education [now Edith Cowan University], and then compared them with tertiary students taking science courses at two North American universities.
Three groups of trainees were surveyed: (1) 93 first-year co-eds, (2) 45 second-year co-eds, all doing a Diploma in Teaching (primary), and (3) 33 secondary co-eds doing a one year Diploma in Teaching course. The third group was included as a check on the effect of more exposure to science (just over half held degrees in the physical or biological sciences). The percentage of believers in these three groups were as follows:
Group 1 2 3
The first two groups show the same average of 50% believers, and any difference for individual topics (the largest is for miracles) is probably not significant due to the small sample sizes. The most notable difference is with the third group, which has an average of 40% believers. Unfortunately the sample size is too small for comfort, but presumably the difference is due to the increased science backgroud. Even so, an average belief level of 40% among secondary teachers is still distressingly high.
Comparison with North American findings
At first sight the Canadian students (Gray) seem rather more believing than US students (Feder), but this may simply reflect differences in how the items were worded and scored. In both cases the general level of paranormal belief is comparable to that in my trainee teachers.
Belief in water divining
No of students 60 45
These 60 students were subsequently given a two-hour lecture designed to challenge their views about pseudoscientific claims in general and about water divining in particular (in both groups only 16% rejected belief in water divining). The lecture looked at real evidence vs hearsay, at misleading newspaper articles, and involved discussion of various pseudoscientific claims. It featured a half-hour video of the Australian Skeptic water divining tests in which professional water diviners failed to perform better than chance under controlled conditions that they themselves had helped to devise. The video included James Randi showing the trickery employed by psychics. As predicted by Randi, when the diviners learnt about their failure they invented endless implausible excuses such as high sunspot activity, interference from jewelry worn by lady observers, the position of Jupiter, and so on.
Post-video discussion and resurvey
Before After Diff
For every item the level of belief declined, with the largest decline being for water divining. After the resurvey, several students indicated in interviews that the lecture and video had made a real impact on their beliefs. On the other hand, such promising results may experience some reversal over longer periods of time (Gray 1984, Happs 1985), and over 40% of the students still retained their beliefs in four topics, to say nothing of the 22% who still believed in water divining despite the video. Worse, if these results are representative of trainee teachers throughout Australia, then their answers to questions on paranormal matters are likely to promote, not diminish, misconceptions in these areas. The spread of pseudoscience may prove difficult to resist.
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