Stop the noise!
By Simon Hoggart
The entertaining foreword to the 2010 myth-busting anthology Why Statues Weep. The author is a well-known British journalist and BBC 4 radio personality. He writes on politics for the Guardian newspaper and on wine for the Spectator. Among other things he has met every British prime minister (all ten of them) since the 1960s.
Perfectly intelligent, thoughtful people often have two reactions to accounts of the paranormal. They either say, "Well, there must be something in it ... I can't think of any other explanation", or they ask why it matters. Isn't it all a bit of fun?
And it can be tricky for the average skeptic. "I went to a spiritualist, and she knew that my uncle had died recently, and that when I was a teenager I broke my leg so I couldn't go skiing! I bet you can't explain that!"
And we -- or most of us -- are raised to be polite, so we don't say what we should, which is, "Oh, come on, did she really know your uncle had just died, or did she say I see death, I see grief ... And she knew you broke your leg, did she? Or did she say that she detected a broken bone in your past, and that had led to disappointment?" What kid doesn't break one limb or another and find they miss some kind of treat?
Or you could ask what she got wrong. Like the way she kept saying that she saw a Kevin in your life, and you couldn't think of anyone called Kevin except that lad who sometimes works Saturdays in the greengrocers. Or the time she said she saw romantic bliss, and you thought no, you weren't getting on well with your partner. You didn't remember that bit, did you?
But on the whole we don't say that. And even when we do nobody thanks us for it. I wrote an article years ago in which I analysed a TV performance by the late Doris Stokes, who claimed to hear messages from the dead. At one point she guessed that a youth who'd died had suffered a heart attack. Told that he was actually killed in a motorcycle crash, she smoothly declared that he had had a heart attack just before the accident. Then, discussing a little boy who had died in hospital, she thought he was still alive. And her interlocutor was not his mother, but his aunt. When I pointed this out in the article, the aunt wrote an angry letter pointing out that she had got his hair colour right, and that Mrs Stokes's words had been a great comfort to the family.
I'm sure they were. No wonder, since as well as using cold-reading techniques Mrs Stokes often simply fed back to the families information she had already got from them. People would phone her and get her husband. They would pour out their troubles to him, he would promise them free tickets for her next appearance in their area, and she would present the information back to them as if it had been provided by spirit voices.
Few in her audience ever said, "Excuse me, I told your husband all that a few weeks ago!" People were in great distress. They were desperate to hear something that implied that their loved ones were happy in the afterlife. The fact that they were being spoon-fed lies, fictions, and evasions didn't matter to them. Like all of us, they preferred to clutch at hope rather than drown in despair.
So why does it matter? Perhaps we shouldn't mind. Mysteries are great fun. It's much more beguiling to think that space aliens travel across the cosmos for hundreds of our earth-years and, on arriving in Britain, decide to trample the crops in artistic circles before starting back on the long journey home. Far more interesting than putting it down to local pranksters. We all want some kind of assurance that the things that go wrong in our lives are not our fault. What better than to blame the heavens? You get fired. A partner leaves you. Someone close tells you exactly what they think of you. How soothing to learn that it has nothing to do with your failings!
"Mars in the ascendant prefigures difficulties at work ... Geminis are liable to have romantic problems ... Scorpios are startled by close friends ..." Again, many people just say that astrology is a bit of fun, but plenty of people attach great weight to it. (Nancy Reagan did, and made sure that her husband, the president, took key decisions at "propitious" times, including signing bills at midnight.)
Some decades ago, the sub-editor on the Daily Mirror in Manchester had the job of writing the daily astrology forecast. Once, bored out of his mind with writing nonsense about "romance beckons" and "financial worries may be settled", he wrote "all the sorrows of yesteryear are as nothing compared to what will befall you today". The switchboard was jammed, and the star-reader was fired.
And, as it happens, astrologers disagree on what the stars foretell. If astrology were a serious science, as they so often claim, you might imagine that they would all roughly take the same view, just as real scientists are able to agree on the boiling point of water. One year's end I found myself in a radio studio with Shelley von Strunckel, who divines the stars for the Sunday Times and London's Evening Standard. We got into a heated argument. She promised to send me a copy of her prognostications for the previous year, just to show how right she had been. She had highlighted her best prediction, which was: "President Clinton will continue to skate on thin ice." American president faces problems! Is that the best the stars can come up with? You might as well write: "Persons will die in road traffic accidents", or "Celebrities will say dumb things".
And real scientists build on their work. People who believe in telepathy have a few very inconclusive experiments which are pored over time and again. And nothing has come of them. But real scientists detect, say, radio waves, and out of that comes radar, safe air travel, TV, mobile phones, microwave ovens, and the internet. Pseudoscience is permanently stuck in the past, trying to find significance in the meaningless.
I would love it if there were a monster in Loch Ness. Wouldn't that be fun? But there ain't -- if there were we'd have heard by now. And why wasn't it spotted for hundreds of years before a London surgeon put a cardboard neck and head on a water bottle he floated into the lake? (In these days, Photoshop means that all pictures are even less reliable than in the past.)
And a few more mysteries about the mysteries. How is it that Nostradamus's predictions always turn out to be about events that are already past, and are no use at predicting the future? Why do people prefer to believe that Roswell was about space aliens who travelled here in a tiny, fragile craft not unlike the detector balloon sent up by the US military? The great sage William of Ockham said that when trying to work something out, there was no need to multiply entities. By this he meant if there is an explanation in the nature we know, we shouldn't invent one out of thin air. If we know that conjurers can do amazing things, such as bending cutlery and reading minds, why imagine that it's being done by mysterious, unknown powers? Why suppose that rain is the angels crying when we know that it is condensed water vapour? William's guideline is known as "Ockham's razor" and it should be included on the Swiss army knife.
I return to the question: does it matter? Isn't it simply amusing? I don't think so. We are, in the modern age, surrounded by lies, exaggeration, misleading nonsense, and spin. We are bombarded by politicians, TV programmes, advertisers, PR persons, people who want to sell us insurance, double-glazing, penis enlargement, and who wish to persuade us that we can earn millions by cooperating with the widow of a corrupt West African plutocrat. Vance Packard, in a seminal book, called some of these manipulators The Hidden Persuaders. They are not hidden any more. They are all around us. We are surrounded by what broadcasters call "noise": the crackling, hissing, constant background din of untruths and semi-truths. We don't need any more. We don't need people trying to persuade us that space aliens are running our lives, or that the stars can foretell what is going to happen to us, or that the world was created in six days so that dinosaurs walked with men because the Bible implies it.
Now, perhaps more than ever before, the plain, unvarnished truth is important for our survival. We need to know what is really happening, or at least to get as close to reality as we can. This book will help us all to get there.
[And so will this website www.undeceivingourselves.com!]