Are you normal?

Psychic Diary 4.4

All argument is against it; but all belief is for it. - Samuel Johnson, on the appearance of the spirit of a deceased person.

Do you ever wonder if you're normal? Is what you believe typical of the population as a whole? Do you care?

Not long ago Gallup interviewed 60,000 adults in the British Isles to find out what, if anything, the `average person' thinks about a wide range of issues: death, insurance, rude personal habits, restaurants, sex, terrorism, pets -  to choose an eclectic, but representative, cross-section. Some of the results were published in Are you normal? (Cox & Co., 1989). While the statistical accuracy of such studies is bound to be the subject of controversy, it's interesting (and fun) to look at the results anyway. For example, would you be surprised to know that 81% believed that their pets understood what they said to them (I mean what the owners said, not the pets)? Or that the average punter has 197 books in the house? I'll pass over the fact that in the summer months 16% of men wear pyjama bottoms only, for something more relevant to these pages: all things paranormalish. Did you know that:

1. More than one in ten British adults claim to have seen a ghost.

2. Overall, 40% believe in some kind of survival after death, but with a curious distinction between the sexes: over half of all women are geared up for the afterlife, but only a third of men.

3. One quarter believe in reincarnation, and 1 in 6 said that they had had an experience of being visited by the spirit of someone who had recently died. (I have had this experience myself, and at the time it was very disturbing indeed; however, I see no reason to seek an explanation outside human psychology.)

4. Over half the sample believe in the reality of telepathy, the ability to accurately predict the future, and the power of mind over matter.

5. 20% believe in flying saucers, and that festooning yourself with lucky charms and mascots gets results.

6. Despite the tabloid fascination with all things occult, and the ever-bankable profiles of modern witches and warlocks, more than 90% think black magic is decrepit flapdoodle.

7. 23% believe in horoscopes, 72% definitely don't, and 5% aren't quite sure.

8. Although only 25% will admit to belief in superstitions of one kind or another, half - myself included, I must admit - still `touch wood' for good luck.

9. 25% have, at some point, employed the services of professional fortune-tellers.

Some alarming statistics, with perhaps a few surprises. What are we to make of them? We must be careful. Skeptics are often accused of the sins of smugness and condescension: we are pictured saying to people `How stupid you are to believe things which we can assure you are rubbish'. I believe such an attitude is unhelpful and divisive. The problem really comes down to balance: the voice of the pro-paranormal `wow!' lobby sells papers; on the other hand, we of the `hang on a minute' school can hardly get a look in. As rationalists, we must seek opportunities to show the other side of the `paranormal' coin. Explanations can be just as marvellous as mysteries.

Anyway, on the basis of Gallup's evidence, it appears that if you read The Skeptic, then you are certainly not. Do you care?


©Toby Howard 1995

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