Why do people believe the things that they do? While only science can generate testable hypotheses, advocates of various paranormal claims tend to rely more on anecdotes, appeals to authority and “intuition” and the general public tends to be ambivalent about the distinction between science and the supernatural. Ongoing controversies over intelligent design in schools, climate change and vaccination have demonstrated that the public perception about science is often shallow due to misunderstandings about how science works.

A recent article published in the Journal of Educational Psychology presents the results of a research study directly comparing the processes that influence how people form opinions on scientific and paranormal concepts. Written by Andrew Shtulman of Occidental College in Los Angeles, the article is part of his research program studying conceptual development relating to science education and how people weigh the actual evidence involved before forming opinions on complex subjects.

In this study, 140 college undergraduates were recruited, half from Harvard University and the other half from Occidental College. No significant differences were found between the students from either school in terms of how they responded in the study.   Each student completed a questionnaire examining how strongly he or she acknowledged the existence of six scientific concepts (black holes, electrons, evolution, genes, fluoride treatment, x-rays). They were also asked about their belief in twelve paranormal subjects (angels, fate, ghosts, God, Heaven, Hell, karma, precognition, reincarnation, Satan, souls, and telepathy).

For each item, the student was asked: (a) whether they believed the entity exists (which Shtulman classified as existence judgments); (b) how confident they were of that belief (confidence ratings); (c) how many other Americans hold the same belief (consensus estimates); (d) why they believe the entity exists (belief justifications); and (e) what evidence, if any, might persuade them to change their belief (belief refutations).   A subset of the original sample (65 participants) later filled out a multiple-choice questionnaire measuring their awareness about the nature of science. Belief justifications and refutations were independently coded by two raters with a high interrater correlation.

On average, students tended to endorse all of the scientific concepts (about 98%) and six out of twelve of the paranormal ones (51%). The nine students who denied the existence of any of the paranormal concepts were excluded from analyses comparing scientific and paranormal beliefs. The paranormal beliefs with the highest endorsement were: souls (81%), God (70%), and karma (68%) with heaven, fate and angels being slightly lower. Confidence ratings were measured on a scale for 1 (not confident) to 7 (100% confident). Not only were mean ratings for scientific concepts significantly higher than paranormal concepts, but ratings closely corresponded to existence judgments. There was little overlap between confidence ratings for scientific and paranormal concepts except for some exceptions. The average confidence rating for the existence of souls was slightly higher than the rating for the existence of black holes, for example.

As for consensus estimates with participants estimating how many Americans would share their judgments about the existence of scientific and paranormal concepts, that was also scored on a seven-point scale. Not surprisingly, most scientific concepts were highly endorsed (except for evolution which only rated 47%) and the overall results closely tallied with existence judgements and confidence ratings.

In examining belief justifications (i.e. why do you believe in the existence of [concept]?), the answers were broken down in terms of objective (referring to external factors) vs. subjective reasons for belief (intuition, for example). Objective justifications were further broken down depending on whether they focused on evidential arguments (based on verifiable sources) as opposed to deferential ones (appeals to authority or other trusted sources).

For scientific concepts and paranormal concepts alike, deferential justification played a dominant role. In other words, most students are confident that electrons and black holes exist because of the credibility of scientists rather than independently weighing the scientific evidence. For scientific concepts, evidential justifications were also common. As for paranormal concepts, students reported being more likely to rely on subjective justifications such as intuition. There was also strong consistency across concepts with students reporting relying on evidence to form opinions on one concept being more likely to do the same with other scientific concepts.

Finally, there was the examination of belief refutations (i.e., what would it take to change your belief in [concept]?). Refutations were broken down into: denials (nothing could change my opinion), evidential (based on empirical evidence) and deferential (relying on credible sources). Much as with belief justifications, student confidence in both scientific and paranormal concepts focused on confidence in authority rather than weighing the actual evidence involved.

One of the most noteworthy findings was that 30% of the students participating in his study denied that anything could change their mind about their paranormal beliefs (as opposed to 21% saying the same about scientific beliefs). In other words, study participants considered their paranormal beliefs to be far more impervious to contradicting evidence than similar beliefs in scientific concepts.

What do these results mean overall? For the general public, accepting concepts such as electrons and x-rays is often taken on faith since firsthand observation is not an option for most people. Though overall public confidence tends to be greater for scientific concepts than the paranormal, how people form opinions on whether such things exist is often similar due to limited understanding about how empirical science actually works.

For the students participating in Andrew Shtulman’s study, deference to authority seemed to be the most important factor shaping their opinions about scientific and paranormal concepts. Despite the available empirical research demonstrating the existence of scientific concepts, many people choose to rely on authority instead rather than weighing the evidence directly.

According to Shtulman, forming opinions based solely on what trusted authorities say on science is often counterproductive since it violates one of the major principles of the scientific process. Even supposedly well-educated people with years of science education seem to prefer basing their opinions on intuition and appeals to authority rather than actual evidence.

In many ways, belief in science shares many similarities with belief in the paranormal, at least in terms of how the general public forms opinions about what does or does not exist. Shtulman also suggests that part of the problem is that science education focuses on science content rather than teaching the actual process of science. He also suggests that teaching students to evaluate both scientific and paranormal concepts for themselves might make them better science consumers as well as being less likely to accept paranormal claims at face value.

While Shtulman pointed out that the study’s methodology might have skewed the results somewhat, he also stressed that students seemed genuinely unaware of how little they actually knew about science, something many participants admitted during debriefing. Though some students were well educated about science and gave good evidence-based arguments to support their opinions, they were definitely in the minority (about 20% of the sample).

Still, this research study identifies three disturbing misconceptions about science that appears widespread in college students and, in all likelihood in the general population: 1. That appealing to authority is an effective way to form opinions on scientific matters, not to mention paranormal ones; 2. That the validity of a scientific concept can be measured by its popularity (it must be true because everybody else believes it too); and 3. That some scientific concepts have been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt and can never be disproven. Even more disturbingly, the college students in the study seem to have a “relativist” view about science and the paranormal and often treat anecdotal evidence or appeals to authority with the same confidence that they would give to actual science.

While Andrew Shtulman’s research parallels similar studies that have gone before, he also suggests that examining how people evaluate evidence in forming opinions about scientific and paranormal concepts has been relatively ignored up to now. As he points out in his paper, “The ability to cite evidence in support of one’s beliefs is, after all, a primary form of scientific literacy and one that needs to be in place if citizens are to make informed decision about public policies of a scientific nature, like whether genetically modified foods should be banned from grocery stores, whether fluoride should be added to tap water, or whether stem cells should be made available for research on cell differentiation.”  

That this basic science literacy is often lacking in even supposedly well-educated students with years of classes in science behind them is critically important, both in learning how to think about science and how to properly examine paranormal claims.


Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada. He is an active blogger and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and Psychology Today. Check out his blog, Providentia.