Evening Standard



Armies routed by bent sword

DAVID SEXTON wields his merciless intellect like a glittering sword, slicing through the woolly-brained layers of superstition. His article (There really isn’t anything out there, 5 February) demonstrates that one right-thinking sceptic, supported only by 15 minutes’ consideration and a pair of sweeping generalisations, can put to rout all the armies of the paranormal.

Ten thousand years of seeking after wisdom can be slit to ribbons with a single searing phrase, “everybody enjoys a good mystery”. How easy it is to imagine the sizzle of his typewriter keys as that retort flamed forth. Ten million witnesses to UFOs are exposed in all their idiocy by three acid-dipped words, “little green men”. His eloquence must raise blisters of shame on the skin of the gullible.

He should have pointed out that reports prove 98.7 per cent of people reporting strange lights in the sky are, in fact, noticing the Sun for the first time. He could have pointed to the mile-long formation of UFOs witnessed by 50,000 people in Arizona of 13 March last year, and then revealed that even the US Air Force failed to detect them: the spaceships were, in fact an unseasonable flock of bald-headed eagles.

He missed the golden chance to poke fun at innumerable people who have conquered disease by mind-power when drugs have failed. Of course these misguided naives are really stone dead, but just too superstitious to admit it.

And I must come clean – as Mr Sexton’s incomparable mind will already have deduced, I don’t really possess the paranormal power to twist metal. I merely own a cunningly crafted set of electronic contact lenses, which, with subliminal flashes and gamma rays, can hypnotise a TV audience into believing they are seeing a spoon bend. In fact, of course, it remains straight all the time.

Uri Geller, Soming-on-Thames, Berkshire.

Original article referred to.

There really isn’t anything out there

Nostradamus, crystal skulls, flying saucers, crop circles, X Files, ley lines and Saint Diana – why is the paranormal so seductive? A growing number of people are being deluded and can no longer distinguish between sense and nonsense, says DAVID SEXTON

IT’S bad news for the Lord. This week the Daily Mail announced on its front page:

As many Britons believe in the paranormal as believe in God.” A survey of more than a thousand people has revealed “the astonishing depth” – surely the right word – of the nation’s belief in the paranormal.

It seems 64 per cent of us now believe in “psychic powers”. One third of the male population believes extraterrestrial life has already visited earth – a larger proportion than believed in the Conservative Party at the last election. Forty-three per cent of women believe in fortune-telling, which must be a nasty setback to feminists who want to advance the dignity of their sex.

Never mind the little green men -these statistics are pretty incredible themselves. Should they be believed? Perhaps people are having a bit of fun. For “wonders are willingly told and willingly heard”, as Dr Johnson observed. If a story is gripping enough – spaceship pyramids! Bible codes! Randy aliens! – we don’t demand too high a standard of proof. Only when we’ve finished the story might we stir ourselves to examine what evidence has been offered. By then, the book has been bought, the programme watched.

Nor do the purveyors of such fantasies need to commit themselves fully to them. The great liberating discovery of recent years has been that paranormal junkies are perfectly happy with stories that are, frankly, completely baseless – or as they might call it speculative This technical advance has opened up the marketplace for hokum no end. Many of the most exciting farragos appear to be produced by writers simply imagining, in the most liberal way, what might be a good yarn to tell, and sell, next.

So all the old favourites -Nostradamus, crystal skulls, the Holy Grail, pharaohs, flying saucers, star signs, crop circles, X Files, ley lines, spirit guides, supergods, the yeti, King Arthur and Saint Diana – can be endlessly recirculated, to make a piquant new combination every time. It is as easy as pie, once you realise that you are looking for entertainment value alone. And everybody enjoys a good mystery.

Normality, for many people, feels like the trap in which they are caught. The paranormal is always intriguing, always seductive. Whatever form it takes, it seems to offer escape from the disappointing routines of daily life.

Once upon a time, the appetite for wonders was not so easily fed. The better publishers would refuse to lend their names to obvious fairy-tales. No longer. Many apparently reputable publishing houses, such as Heinemann, Hodder, HarperCollins, Macmillan and Bloomsbury, have developed profitable lines in superstitious garbage. Bloomsbury, for example, has issued any number of Nostradamus-inspired forecasts which time has, in its relentless way, shown to be unreliable. In a Bloomsbury production called Nostradamus: The End of the Millennium: Prophecies 1992-2000, published in 1991, it was confidently predicted that Prince Charles, ably assisted by his wife, would be crowned King Charles III on 2 May 1992.

Yet, somehow, publishers don’t feel any embarrassment about such boo-boos. Belief in the paranormal is, they say, all part of popular culture, neither true nor untrue, just there; trendy cultural relativists in academia proclaim that it is impermissible to criticise other people’s beliefs, whatever they may be. And surely nobody takes these stories seriously anyway? They do no harm.

But they do, they do, as the new survey demonstrates. The drip, drip effect has worn away scepticism. For years, propaganda for the paranormal has appeared along-side factual documentaries, as though it were worthy of the same respect. Such television shows as Beyond Belief, Strange but True and Secrets of the Paranormal have shamelessly pretended to be genuine reports.

We are now seeing the result. A large and growing proportion of the population has become unable to distinguish between truth and falsehood, sense and nonsense. It should not be necessary to ask if this matters.

THE most disastrous result of the belief in the paranormal is probably the thriving market in “alternative health” therapies of all kinds. Forty per cent of the population now believe that “people can cure illnesses with the power of the mind”. What people actually do is fool themselves, waste their money and energy, and in some cases die before their time because they have put their faith in mumbo jumbo and refused conventional treatment. In 1986, the BMA robustly dismissed alternative therapies as “primitive beliefs and outmoded practices, almost all without basis”. These days, they defer to them as “complementary medicine”, perhaps mainly in order to persuade their adherents at least to take proper treatment too.

Superstition breeds superstition, too. People who believe in the paranormal often become prone to other forms of delusion too. The outburst of incoherent occultism in the wake of Princess Diana’s death surprised many, but it was the natural consequence of the way the gullible have been systematically and irresponsibly exploited by the media over the past few years. The Church of England is no less to blame for abrogating its duty to discipline belief, in its desperate search for any sign of interest whatsoever.

Even at its most harmless, the paranormal wastes our precious time. The men who spend their nights scanning the skies for bugeyed visitors, or just reading about them avidly, are turning aside from their own lives. The women who have their fortunes told are evading responsibility for their own fate.

In the end, the paranormal is sad stuff. The more of these follies one allows into one’s life, the less time there is left for what is real. Horace said as much about astrology – the same “Babylonian calculations” then as now – more than 2,000 years ago. “Do not ask – it is forbidden to know – what end the gods have in store for me or for you,” he wrote. Life is brief. Reap the day.



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