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Paranormal Beliefs
of Trainee Teachers
Mostly bad news

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.

The investigation
I gave the trainee teachers a questionnaire about their beliefs in nine paranormal areas, namely fortune telling, contacting the dead, horoscopes, miracles, creation of the universe, UFOs, the Loch Ness monster, ESP, and water divining. The last was included because in Australia it is easy to find people who make a living out of water divining.

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
No of students 93 45 33
Fortune telling 53 58 52
Contact the dead 44 40 24
Horoscopes 24 29 21
Miracles 75 58 49
Creation of univ 49 47 33
UFOs 54 67 46
Loch Ness monster 31 29 27
Water divining 54 51 43
ESP 69 71 61
Average 50 50 40

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
Feder (1985) surveyed the beliefs of a representative sample of 186 students at the Central Connecticut State University using a 50-item questionnaire. The students were attending introductory courses in archaeology, anthropology, biology and sociology. Gray (1984) made a similar 10-item survey of 125 students attending introductory psychology courses at Concordia University, Montreal. The percentage of believers in both surveys on items similar to those in the present survey were as follows:

                   Feder  Gray
No of students 186 125
Biorhythms 46
Contact the dead 18
Astrology 24 55
Miracles 43
Creation of univ 62
UFOs 38 69
Loch Ness monster 29
ESP 55 85
Von Daniken 46
God exists 76
Ghosts 43
Average 43 55

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
Student belief in water divining was not investigated by Feder or Gray. So this will be an important focus for the rest of this article. Twelve months after the survey of 45 primary trainee teachers, the same questionnaire was given to 60 second year students taking the same Diploma course as those in the previous group (2). The percentages of believers were much the same as before and were as follows:

No of students       60      45
Fortune telling 60 58
Contact the dead 28 40
Horoscopes 28 29
Miracles 75 58
Creation of univ 52 47
UFOs 58 67
Loch Ness monster 32 29
Water divining 67 51
ESP 72 71
Average 52 50

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
The video surprised many of the students and clearly had an impact. But how lasting were these results? To find out, the students were re-surveyed three months after their viewing of the video, with the following results:

                   Before   After   Diff
---- ---- ----
Fortune telling 60 35 25
Contact the dead 28 13 15
Horoscopes 28 13 15
Miracles 75 46 29
Creation of univ 52 43 9
UFOs 58 40 18
Loch Ness monster 32 16 16
Water divining 67 22 45
ESP 72 46 26
---- ---- ----
Average 52 30 22

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.

Postscript 2006
Farha and Steward (2006) noted that Gallup Polls in the USA had revealed that an average of 1 in 3 Americans believed in various paranormal phenomena such as ghosts and clairvoyance. Generally (but not always), younger people were more believing than older, and women were more believing than men. Does a university education reduce paranormal beliefs? To find out, the authors surveyed 439 students from universities in southwestern USA. Answer: yes, but not by much. In most areas the percentage of believers was a few percent lower than the Gallup percentages, but so was the percentage of nonbelievers. Contrary to expectation, the percentage of believers increased with educational level, from first year 23% to graduates 34%. Students in social sciences and education were more believing than those in physical sciences (30% vs 25%).

Bainbridge WS (1978). Chariots of the Gullible. Skeptical Inquirer 3(2), 33-48
Farha B and Steward G (2006). Paranormal beliefs: An analysis of college students. Skeptical Inquirer 30(1), 37-40, January/February 2006.
Feder KL (1986). The Challenges of Pseudoscience. Journal of College Science Teachers 18(3), 180-186
Gardner M (1981). Science: Good, Bad and Bogus, Prometheus Books, Buffalo NY
Godfrey, L (Ed) (1983). Scientists Confront Creationism, Norton, New York.
Gray T (1984). University Course Reduces Belief in Paranormal. Skeptical Inquirer 8(3), 247-251
Guenette R and Guenette F (1975). Bigfoot The Myslarious Monster, Sunn Classic Books, Los Angeles.
Happs JC (1985). Regression in Learning Outcomes: Some Examples from the Earth Sciences. European Journal of Science Education 7(4), 431-443
Jerome L (1977). Astrology Disproved, Prometheus Books, Buffalo NY.
Jones D (1979). Visions of Time: Experiments in Psychic Archaeology, Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton IL.
Kusche L (1975). The Bermuda Triangle Mystery - Solved, Warner Books, New York.
Marks D and Kammann R (1980). The Psychology of the Psychic, Prometheus Books, Buffalo NY.
Snyder G (1977). Is There a Loch Ness Monster: The Search for a Legend, Wanderer Books, New York.
Story R (1976). The Space Gods Revealed, Harper & Row, New York.

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