There was a time in my youth when I might broadly have agreed with the sentiment expressed above. However, there comes a point beyond which open-mindedness – an admirable trait, one might argue – slides unwittingly into gullibility.
In my rebellious teens I was much attracted by the writings of Erich von Daniken, who posed the provocative question “Was God an Astronaut?”. Captivated by his faux-scientific reasoning, I was ready to concede that the Nazca Lines might, indeed, be an airport for returning aliens, and that a mural inside a pyramid did, on reflection, look a lot like a depiction of an astronaut inside an Apollo Command Module. Nor did I see any particularly good reason to disbelieve that several ancient earthenware burial pots of the author’s acquaintance were, in truth, primitive batteries. To my cringing recollection, I passed many an hour arguing, ad nauseam, similar cases with my elders and betters (including a number of teachers who were, I now realise, munificent in their restraint).
Such is the arrogance of youth: at sixteen, one has insufficient experience to appreciate how deluding a lack of experience can be.
During this period I spent a small fortune on books which ploughed a similar furrow and which generally reinforced my newborn point of view. Reading “Supernature”, I marvelled at the news that a blunt razor blade left beneath a pyramid would become sharp again; I was gobsmacked to discover, in “The Bermuda Triangle”, that the eponymous region was self-evidently a portal to another dimension in time and space; in “The Sirius Mystery”, the conclusion that the legend of Gilgamesh was really the tale of a stranded alien astronaut was seemingly undeniable.
To give you some further inkling of my credulity at the time, I even swallowed, with barely a qualm, the wild claims contained within “Uri”, the purported biography of spoon-bender Uri Geller, which now appear to be cheesy inventions of a particularly ripe variety. (I should have been suspicious of a superior being named “Hoova” with whom Uri professed to be communing, not just on the grounds it was highly unlikely, but also as a potential breach of trademark.)
The first crack in the dam wall of my beliefs came when I discovered that Geller had been a stage magician back in Israel. Doubt began to gnaw away at me. After all, there was nothing he did in front of the camera that magicians could not emulate. Was he, at the end of the day, just a charlatan? I had to know, so I sought out a book by professional magician, James “the Amazing” Randi. It was called “The Magic of Uri Geller” and what I discovered within its pages taught me a mighty lesson, and came with the added bonus of belly-laughs, many at my own expense, as I recognised my own and others’ credulity.
It turned out, of course, that Geller used stage magicianship to accomplish his feats. He was living proof of the maxim that, if you are going to lie, you should lie big. He was undoubtedly a superb showman, but franky his claims were about as reliable as a used car bought from a dealership run by Robert Maxwell. By way of example, he stated that he had teleported from Israel to Brazil and back, and that he had the Brazilian banknote to prove it. The fact that he came running up with said banknote in hand was all the proof that his biographer, Andrija Puharich, needed to swallow the story whole. (Puharich, it turned out, had much in common with Alice’s White Queen, given his propensity for believing as many as six impossible things before breakfast.)
Upon further investigation, each of the subjects that had once so entranced me gave up its mystery with a loud whoopee-cushion fart. Almost overnight the most credulous fool in Christendom became an arch-sceptic, a scourge of flummery, religion and New Age mumbo-jumbo in all its multifarious disguises. It was, looking back, largely an over-reaction born of hurt pride, but had there been a prize for evangelical rationalism I would probably have won it hands down as a twenty-something.
These days I am largely content to keep my opinions on the subject to myself, but I cannot agree with the author of the article on this website that the media are generally over-critical of paranormal claims. If anything, too many reporters prefer not to spoil a good story with anything as tiresome as old-fashioned scientific rigour.
Science is not a closed shop to new ways of looking at the universe. Far from it. But it is only right that extraordinary claims should be furnished with extraordinary proof. Personal anecdotes are, by definition, a very low grade of evidence. Rather than moan when these are discounted or disbelieved, paranormal investigators should reflect on why it is that higher grades of evidence are typically significant only by their absence. James Randi has a long-standing reward of $1,000,000 available for anyone who can offer scientific proof of a paranormal claim. Tellingly, no one has yet got any further than the preliminary tests.