Jennifer: I was sitting in the laboratory with a colleague on Tuesday, supervising a reaction. For want of something to read, I was flipping through a gas chromatograph operation manual; gripping stuff. My colleague, however, had come prepared with reading material of his own. I confess I found the title of his book much more compelling than “Agilent 6850 Series II Networked GC”. I was distracted from a captivating paragraph on Automatic Liquid Sampling, and we began to talk about his obviously well-read copy of “Science Friction” by American science writer and historian, Michael Shermer.
Shermer is a self-professed skeptic. He likens the nature of skeptical thinking to the scientific method- gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. As a skeptic, Shermer is a strong disbeliever in the paranormal. “Science Friction” is an account of his experimentation with clairvoyance, psychic readings and tarot cards. After just one day’s preparation, consisting of reading up on the aforementioned techniques, he convincingly performed psychic readings on five people for an American TV network. Shermer’s approach was scientific- he “primed his subjects” by “adopting a soft voice, calm demeanour and sympathetic and non-confrontational body language”. His readings were then “high probability guesses” based on his analysis of their appearances and personalities.
While I hold no steadfast belief in the existence of a spiritual world, I confess I have an imagination that can sometimes run away with me. This Friday I will be attending an exhibition opening at the Fremantle Arts Centre in Western Australia. The building is an historic landmark constructed by convicts in the 19th century. It was previously known as the Asylum for the Criminally Insane, and is reputed to be haunted by the spirit of a former female inmate who jumped to her death from the first floor. The Fremantle Arts Centre is known to many (many non-skeptics, that is) as the most haunted building in the Southern Hemisphere. My introduction to skepticism and Michael Shermer is extremely timely- on Friday, I will be doing my best to think like a true skeptic in order to banish fear of “otherworldly phenomena” from my imagination.
While many skeptics may scoff at my entertaining of such nostrums, it seems that Shermer himself has given me an excuse. The results of a study communicated in Shermer’s 1997 publication, “Why People Believe Weird Things”, indicate the tendencies of different groups of people to believe in the paranormal. I fit neatly into his category of “Female, aged between 18 and 29”. I am therefore more likely to believe in ghosts, witches, clairvoyants and haunted houses (or, as the case may be, haunted Arts Centres).
So: psychics…or physics? I had never recognised, until now, the aesthetic similarity of these two words which provoke such dissension and discord. Their frictional relationship renders the title of Shermer’s publication very appropriate. While I am sure that many paranormal phenomena can be explained using scientific reasoning, I could never adopt a fully skeptical outlook. An active imagination adds vibrancy to what for me could otherwise be an insipid approach to life.