Belief in Pseudoscience and the Paranormal Widespread and Growing According to the National Science Foundation Study. (News)

Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Belief in Pseudoscience and the Paranormal Widespread and Growing According to the National Science Foundation Study. (News)


In April, 2002, the National Science Foundation (NSF) published their biennial report on the state of science understanding and public attitudes toward science, that included a section on the relationships between science and pseudoscience. The results were alarming:

--30% of adult Americans believe that UFOs are space vehicles from other civilizations.

--60% believe in ESP.

--40% think that astrology is scientific.

--32% believe in lucky numbers.

--70% accept magnetic therapy as scientific.

--88% agree that alternative medicine is a viable means of treating illness.

In support of its findings the NSF report presented the figure opposite, originally published by the Gallup Organization, on increasing percentages of belief in various paranormal phenomena.

The NSF survey summarized the overall findings on pseudoscience this way:

Belief in pseudoscience, including astrology, extrasensory perception (ESP), and alien abductions, is relatively widespread and growing. For example, in response to the 2001 NSF survey, a sizable minority (41%) of the public said that astrology was at least somewhat scientific, and a solid majority (60%) agreed with the statement "some people possess psychic powers or ESP." Gallup polls show substantial gains in almost every category of pseudoscience during the past decade. Such beliefs may sometimes be fueled by the media's miscommunication of science and the scientific process.

As for alternative or complementary medicine, the NSF report highlighted their findings as such:

Alternative medicine, defined here as any treatment that has not been proven effective using scientific methods, has been gaining in popularity. One study documented a 50% increase in expenditures for alternative therapies and a 25 % increase in the use of alternative therapies between 1990 and 1997. Also, more than two thirds of those responding to the NSF survey said that magnetic therapy was at least somewhat scientific, although no scientific evidence exists to support claims about its effectiveness in treating pain or any other ailment.

Of the various alternative modalities, the survey reported magnets as the most popular. Among those who reported using energy healing, the most frequently cited technique involved the use of magnets. In 2001, NSF survey respondents were asked whether or not they had heard of magnetic therapy, and if they had, whether they thought that it was very scientific, sort of scientific, or not at all scientific. A substantial majority of survey respondents (77%) had heard of magnetic therapy. Among all who had heard of this treatment, 14% said it was very scientific and another 54% said it was sort of scientific. Only 25% of those surveyed answered correctly, that is, that it is not at all scientific.

Education by itself is no paranormal prophylactic. Although belief in ESP decreased from 65% among high school graduates to 60% among college graduates, and belief in magnetic therapy dropped from 71% among high school graduates to 55% among college graduates, that still leaves over half fully endorsing such claims! …

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