Can Skepticism Blind You to the Truth?

An odd experiment, done by a believer in paranormal phenomena, opens a few questions about how everyone perceives the world. We know that belief can blind people – but can disbelief do the same thing?

Arthur Ellison, a professor of electrical engineering and prank enthusiast, decided to end a lecture in an entertaining way. He got a group of volunteers, some of whom were his colleagues, to concentrate on a bowl of flowers on a table. They were to look at it, chant "om," and attempt to levitate it with their minds. To almost everyone's surprise, they succeeded. The bowl lifted off the table, only to crash back down when the group stopped chanting in surprise.

Ellison was not surprised. He had levitated the bowl with an electromagnet. He wasn't interested in the levitation, but the reaction of the participants. One person came up to him and told him that there had been a gray substance rising up from the floor, through the table, and under the bowl when the flowers had levitated. Another, however, had claimed that nothing had happened, and the bowl had never moved at all. Both were wrong.

Perhaps the story should be taken with a grain of salt. Ellison was, in addition to his academic accomplishments, a dedicated paranormal researcher who believed the science was too narrow to account for things like out-of-body experiences. This story was from one of his books.

Still, it makes me wonder if there is a bias that comes with disbelief. In the long run, it doesn't matter, as science and skepticism aren't about witnessing or not witnessing an event. They are about carefully reviewing evidence, checking facts, and going over a set-up both before and after the event to establish all the elements. That's a process that doesn't lend itself to tricks of the light or frames of mind. So, ideally, a committed skeptic who had not seen the bowl move would go over the set-up, discover the magnets, test the thing out, and say, "Oh, I guess I was wrong. It did move." Still it would be interesting to see if determined skeptics, in the moment, might blind themselves to a phenomenon the way determined believers might see a phenomenon that doesn't exist. What do you think?

[Via Science and the Paranormal.]