The Ethical Dilemma: My Sister Believes in the Paranormal!

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Paranormal Credulity: My sister is generally a believer in science. She will smack down anybody who questions the consensus on anthropogenic global warming and has even been something of a know-it-all on matters of rocks and erosion since taking a geology class in college.

When it comes to the paranormal, though, she seems to have a blind spot. She is an avid fan of the Travel Channel show Ghost Adventures and not in an ironic way. She seems to accept that because they use science-y equipment and claim to verify that mundane explanations can’t account for their findings that they are actually doing science and coming up with real evidence.

So, with her birthday coming up soon, I have been debating whether it would be wise to buy her a good science-based book dealing with the paranormal in hopes of opening up some cracks in the wall that is keeping her scientific brain apart from her very human credulity. I realize that I risk alienating her, possibly sending her deeper into denial. Is there any way that this idea could work?

—Just Trying to Help

Dear Help,

I am very close friends with a math/science whiz. He and I were agreeing about the absurdity of the whole notion of astrology—that the particular moment you were born determines your traits and future. But when he went on to assert that astrology would make sense if it were pegged to the moment you were conceived rather than when you were born, I thought my head might explode. He is also prone to go on and on about spirituality, which I don’t normally have a problem with, but in his case no one can follow what he’s talking about, other than the ineffable ineffable. Yet he is a respected and successful inventor and authority on computing.

Another beloved friend, a believer but not a churchgoer, occasionally begins with an apology to me, her favorite atheist, before she launches into her conviction that there are angels involved in her life. And many years ago, I skeptically met with a very persuasive “psychic” who predicted my true love would have a D in his name. After desperately trying (and failing) to make things work with a Dennis and a David, I decided to banish the entire reading from my mind. And for more than twenty years now, I’ve been with a wonderful man who hasn’t a D anywhere in his name.

As mind-boggling and occasionally vexing as it can be to watch people you admire exhibit uncharacteristic superstitious beliefs, often those aberrations don’t appear to do any serious harm. Some irrational beliefs seem to provide pleasure or comfort to those who hold them, for example when someone believes a loved one who has passed away visits them in their dreams. I’d be more worried about people who believe that time-tested vaccines are dangerous or part of an evil conspiracy, or that this past winter was divine retribution for some sin in the Boston area.

A really engaging book or video-debunking paranormal experience—maybe something from Penn and Teller or the Amazing (James) Randi or Bill Nye the Science Guy (readers, any suggestions?)—might actually be a great gift if you think your sister would genuinely enjoy it and not take offense. You don’t indicate how old she is other than mentioning that she took a college course, but it’s likely she’ll shake off her fascination with pseudoscientific ghosts by the time that show is cancelled. Until then, you can good-naturedly poke a bit of fun, but give her space to enjoy her little detour from rationality until she gets back on track. And don’t fret if she never does, as long as no real damage is being done (beyond the doubts she is raising about her rationality).