6 Myths You May Believe Are True

It is routine for sane, sincere and intelligent people to see and hear things that are not there.

We misidentify things that are there, misremember events, misinterpret personal experiences and fail miserably at logically assessing evidence. These well-documented human phenomena occur all the time. In his book, 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think are True (Prometheus Books), author Guy P. Harrison not only shows why there is ample room for doubt regarding many common beliefs, but how the natural processes of our brains cause us to stumble when trying to determine the validity of a claim or personal experience. So, let’s ponder six popular misconceptions… which you may have long accepted as fact.

Close encounters!
Surveys consistently find that one-fourth of adult Americans believe Unidentified Flying Objects are visitors from outer space. Why is this belief so common when there is no hard evidence for such an extraordinary claim? All we have are great stories and blurry photos. Perhaps the most likely explanation is our irresistible urge for making up answers rather than simply admitting ignorance. A strange light in the sky is just that — a light; nothing warrants jumping to the conclusion that it must be aliens. Always remember that there is nothing wrong with using the simple and honest phrase: I don’t know. “I have the mind of a UFO skeptic,” says Harrison, “but I’ll always have the heart of a UFO believer. My hunch is that there is probably life beyond the Earth and I really do hope that someone discovers it one day — whether it be SETI, NASA or some lonely farmer in an Iowa cornfield. But I won’t pretend to know something so important until it’s proven.”

We’re all gonna die tomorrow!
We have long had a strange obsession with our own demise. Today an entire industry might be described as “doomsday porn.” People can’t consume apocalyptic books and movies fast enough, it seems. For thousands of years, people have predicted the end of the world. It matters little that these predictions fail over and over. A NASA scientist reports being contacted by people contemplating suicide to avoid the horrors of the Maya 2012 doomsday. The good news is that by asking basic questions, demanding hard evidence, and checking physical claims about the Earth or space with the appropriate fields of science, it is not difficult to expose these claims for what they almost always are: made up out of thin air and placed atop a wobbly pedestal of faulty reasoning. The bad news is there have been several mass extinctions in Earth’s history — such as those wiping out the dinosaurs. Apparently the Tobo super-volcano erupted thousands of years ago, causing a global winter that cut human numbers down to as little as a few thousand. But they were smart enough and tough enough to make it. Giving further cause for optimism, a 2009 scientific study looked at how vulnerable we are today to a wide variety of major catastrophes — and found that humankind is very likely to endure.

I saw Bigfoot!
A 2006 Baylor University study found that 16 percent of the U.S. population believes Bigfoot is alive and well. How likely is it that a gigantic primate is running free in the Pacific Northwest? Not very. It would mean there must be not just one individual, but a viable population — hundreds or thousands — of Bigfoot creatures (Bigfeet?) capable of producing enough offspring to dodge extinction while also somehow avoiding scientific confirmation all these years. If Bigfoot, dragons and the Loch Ness Monster excite you, I have great news. Weird and scary-looking species are discovered all the time. A 2011 study published in PLoS Biology reported scientists have catalogued less than 20 percent of land species and 10 percent of marine species to date. There is much work to be done. “Why believe in the unlikely beasts of myth and legend?” asks Harrison, “when so many amazing — and real — creatures are all around us, awaiting scientific discovery?”

Mystical cures!
It is difficult to condemn all alternative or complimentary medicine… because some of it probably does work. But how can we separate the good from the junk? The scientific method. But this presents another problem for fans of alternative medicine because once a treatment has successfully run the gauntlet of science, it’s no longer “alternative,” but is recognized medicine. There is great danger in placing faith in alternative medicine over evidence-based science. For example, a 2008 Harvard study found that more than 360,000 South African AIDS patients unnecessarily suffered premature deathsbetween 2000 and 2005 because science-based treatments were rejected in favor of alternative cures. When it comes to health, skepticism and an appreciation for the scientific method are crucial. Misunderstanding how science works and putting unwarranted trust in folklore can kill.

I’m Psychic!
When author Guy P. Harrison posed as a psychic, he was shocked at how easy it was to fool the public. After fumbling through generalized predictions and questions, he was certain his subject would laugh or perhaps become angry. But, no, she leaned close and whispered, “That was amazing. How long have you been a psychic? You knew so much about me.” This sort of thing happens all the time. It is common for intelligent and sensible people to be fooled into thinking that another person can read their mind or see the future. Probably the biggest reason is “confirmation bias,” our natural tendency to embrace that which supports our preconceptions — while ignoring anything that contradicts our beliefs. Those who believe in psychics are likely to remember all the correct guesses and excuse the failed ones. Try to sort out reality from fantasy — and pick out valid claims from false ones, as you override your confirmation bias.

It is not unusual for our brains to work overtime imagining elaborate conspiracies where none exist. Could a relatively powerless man such as Lee Harvey Oswald kill the most powerful leader in the world — President John F. Kennedy? Listening to and passing on salacious tales is irresistible for most of us. What really happened to Elvis? Princess Diana? What about Area 51? Billions are made off of this obsession via gossip magazines and TV. It doesn’t help that history is filled with real conspiracies! John Wilkes Booth actually did conspire with others to kill Lincoln, al-Qaida did plot for years to pull off the 9/11 attacks, and the Nixon White House actually did try to dig up dirt on political opponents in the Watergate burglary — and went to incredible lengths to attempt a cover-up!

Image by Kevin Hand/Prometheus Books

To purchase 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think are True, by Guy P. Harrison, click here!

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