This is a subject I have been mulling over for a while. It was sparked by a casual comment on the excellent podcast Life, The Universe and Everything Else by the Winnepeg Skeptics. One of the panel said that they were addicted to pseudoscience and supernatural books when they were young. Then I read that Jason Colavito, an excellent debunker of Ancient Aliens, began his interest as a believer and gradually realised it was all bollocks. I must say, I was an omnivorous reader when I was young and I used to buy all kind of nonsense at jumble sales – Dennis Wheatley, T. Lobsang Rampa, Erich von Däniken, Carlos Castañeda, John M. Allegro.
I grew out of it by the time I was in my early twenties and it certainly never did me any harm. But could you make a case that exposure to this kind of dim-witted rubbish is actually a good thing for young minds?
The thing is, teenagers don’t think like adults. Teenagers are alive to a thousand possibilities. They are still looking for who they are and what they think about the world. The behaviour of teenagers is frequently a challenge for older people because it is often irrational and contradictory but in a sense, that’s because it needs to be. In many ways, it’s like the process of brainstorming. The first stage is to generate ideas uncritically, without rejecting anything. And one thing you can say about pseudoscientists is that they are also open to all kinds of irrational nonsense. No idea is too stupid to be rejected out of hand by a follower of pseudoscience. As a kid, I can remember reading Erich von Däniken’s books and the sense of wonder and of infinite possibility that his absurd theories gave me.
Another thing is that pseudoscientific books frequently cherry-pick exciting facts. They home in on things which are surprising, anomalous and interesting in mainstream research, as well as generous dollops of made-up nonsense. If you can work out which is which, pseudoscience can sometimes lead to some genuinely interesting material. (Of course, one common complaint is that these people make money by riding on the back of good research and distorting its conclusions, a criticism which is entirely justified.)
And last but not least, if I only read respectable and accurate works of scholarship as a child, would I have such an acute ability to detect bullshit now? Somehow I doubt it. I think that exposure to the illogical arguments and non sequiturs and random prejudices of pseudoscience actually works like an inoculation (for some people, at least). It makes them think about the nature of truth and dishonesty and it makes them develop the antibodies of skepticism and doubt.
However, if people still believe in this nonsense when they’re fully grown up, that’s a problem. But let’s face it, while it’s a problem for the wider society, it’s far more of a problem for these individuals themselves. They are the ones who are really missing out by preferring woo to true. As adults, they should be looking for that buzz of awe and wonder in the amazing amount we now know about the universe around us instead of watching Ancient Aliens. They should be impressed at the incredible amount that medical science has achieved rather than putting their faith in expensive water.
At the very least, I think that this kind of dross should be read and discussed in schools, because people need to be taught to recognise bad thinking and to develop good thinking and the easiest way to do that is to look at the worst examples of bad thinking around.