ABC’s Nightline Primetime ran a series this summer called Beyond Belief, which explored various supernatural and pseudoscientific phenomena. It was surprisingly, though not completely, skeptical. I doubt anyone in the audience found it persuasive.
Anyway, the show got me to thinking about a class I took in college back when dirt was young, Paranormal Anthropology. Looking back, I’m not sure whether to consider it a complete waste of time. It did help me reinforce those parts of my mind responsible for keeping my brain from falling out. So to speak.
Class periods were divided between lectures from the teacher (not a Ph.D.) and guest lecturers who were no doubt thrilled to get an opportunity to promote their various brands of woo (astrology, numerology, etc.) to a bunch of college students taking what was widely known to be a Mickey.
The numerologist had the students write our dates of birth on pieces of paper and turn them in. One by one she opened the pieces of paper, read the DOB aloud, and speak with the person about some vague event or some vague relative. It’s always difficult with so many people in the room. When she read my DOB, she interrupted herself and went on a tangent about something or other. When she finished her non sequitur, she read my DOB again, and then stated that she’d already done it and moved on to the next person. At the time, I was disappointed and a little miffed.
After class, I approached the numerologist and told her that (contrary to her claims in class) she skipped over me. She told me that the message was too personal to share in front of the class. She gave me her card and told me to call that night, which I did.
She told me that she’d received a message from a relative, deceased, female, with a short name, she’s seeing four letters, Anne, maybe, or Anna. I don’t have any Annes or Annas in my family tree that I know of. I get out my family photo albums and search them for female relatives, deceased with a short name. I have a great great aunt (I think) named Emma. (I noticed, but didn’t mention, that I was doing all the work.) That’s it! Emma’s trying to send me a very important and personal message that could not be shared with the class.
Great Great Aunt Emma is worried about me because I’m so stressed out and I need to relax.
Sometime after the incident with the numerologist, one of the students complained to the teacher that none of the guest lecturers was a skeptic. The teacher decided to remedy the situation by bringing in someone he thought would bring in some balance, a skeptical voice: a fundamentalist Christian of the born-again variety. This “skeptic” told the class that anyone who wasn’t born again in Christ was going to hell. When asked about the Jewish student in the class, the fundie said that as long as remained Jewish he was not born again in Christ and, therefore, hell.
That is not skepticism. That’s just a different superstition, but it’s loaded with naked bigotry. It isn’t enough just to disagree or claim that your superstition is better than all those other superstitions. Skepticism requires more.
The teacher was surprised by the response to the fundie. He seemed dismayed and a bit confused. None of the other guest lecturers received anything like hostility from the class, but then, none of the other guest lecturers condemned the better part of the class to hell.
Some years later, the teacher of this class was involved in a sort of controversy. He had given a student a C, and the student thought he deserved a better grade. Paranormal Anthropology, as I’ve mentioned, was not a difficult course. With little effort, students in that class should be able to get a solid B. To get a C requires a different sort of effort. But the student in question came from money, and the teacher was not a Ph.D. and consequently did not have tenure. When the teacher refused to change the grade and the University changed it anyway, he resigned.
I don’t think anyone teaches Paranormal Anthropology anymore, although there may be a woo-centric class or two in the Psychology department these days. These kinds of classes could be good classes, if they provided students with the tools to see what psychics and astrologers and numerologists and their friends do and how not to be taken in by it. And it would be nice if those tools were provided deliberately.