Adapted  from 101 Words I Don't Use by Paul Niquette
Copyright 1996 Sophisticated:The Magazine. All rights reserved.

Skepticism, like chastity, should not be relinquished too readily.
-- George Santayana

The woman in middle years sitting on my right at the wedding dinner wore decorative glasses, the kind with the inverted frames and rhinestones. "You're a scientist," she said. Reflections of candlelight concealed her eyes. Conversation with her was unavoidable. Someone told me she was an amateur psychic.  Here we go, I thought to myself.

"My craft skill is engineering," I replied. "I've studied the sciences, but I wouldn't say I'm a -- "

"What sciences have you studied?" she asked.

"Mostly the physical sciences, math, some biology. I'm fascinated by the life sciences. And you?"

The psychic looked at me intently. "Do you believe that science has all the answers?"

"From what I see, science hardly has all the questions." Several people around the table stopped talking. "Science is in the question business," I continued. "Telescopes and microscopes, atom smashers and deep-space probes -- they all seem to produce questions faster than answers, don't they. And, as for answers, the principal activities of the Scientific Method involve -- "

"Your 'Scientific Method'," interrupted the psychic, waggling pairs of fingers as quotes alongside her temples, "is just one of many belief systems."

"Belief, perhaps. But with a useful difference." I resigned myself for the moment to brief rejoinders.

"There are realms," said she, "where science is powerless in providing explanations. Many realms indeed!"

The psychic's argument was a familiar one to me. I could almost move my lips in synchrony with hers. The only question in my mind was which of the paranormal phenomena would this lady choose first to challenge me with.  There is quite a long list -- more than 50 items to choose from. At one or another time, I have been drawn into debate on...

    ancient astronauts, astral projection, astrology, Atlantis, auras, Bermuda Triangle, billet reading, biorhythms, birth signs, dowsing, dream telepathy, extrasensory perception, graphology, horoscopes, kinesthetics, Kirlian photography, levitation, magic words, magnetotherapy, Maharishi Effect, mantras, negative vibrations, numerology, occult, Ouija, out-of-body experiences, palmistry, parapsychology, psychic photography, precognition, psychic surgery, pyramidology, reincarnation, Science of Creative Intelligence, seances, spiritualism, spoon bending, table tipping, telekinetic watch repair, transcendental meditation, unidentified flying objects, zodiacal signs.
Seems like everywhere I go, I find adherents and zealots -- eager followers of Dixon or Geller, Hubbard or Hurkos, Rand or Rhine, Velikovsky or von Daniken. First principles -- like two solid objects not being able to occupy the same space at the same time or water seeking its own level -- never seem quite good enough for these people. There always has to be something 'more.'

According to surveys,...

  • two out of three American adults say they have experienced extrasensory perception,
  • one out of four believe in reincarnation, and
  • more than two out of five believe that they have been in contact with someone who has died.
The surveys were made in the late 80's. In the 20th century!
Some things have to be 
believed to be seen.
-- Ralph Hodgson

Back in the forties, Bergen Evans coined the expression 'vulgar errors' in his book The Natural History of Nonsense. Belief in the stuff persists all around us, despite the noble efforts of CSICOP (pronounced 'psy-cop' -- Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). Belief in vulgar errors will doubtless survive the space age, the computer age, and all the discoveries of frauds and hoaxes, the proofs of experimental cheating and misappropriated data. Credulity will endure in the face of the most credible discrediting by precise instruments and dispassionate analyses by such big league skeptics as Isaac Asimov, James Randi, and Carl Sagan.

    I continue to marvel at these seeming anomalies in human rationalities -- all the more so, since that wedding feast in Lake Tahoe, to which we now return...
The bride and groom came to our table. He bent down and kissed the psychic on her forehead. I neglected to mention that she was the mother of the groom.

"You take what happened between these two love birds, for example," she said to me. "They've had psychic experiences -- actually knowing each other's thoughts from far away. Isn't that so?"

The groom flushed.

"Science cannot explain such things as ESP," said his mother, warming to her task. Solemn nodding around the table. The groom's sister was seated across from me. She spoke up, looking earnestly into my eyes.

"Once when we were kids," she said, "my brother guessed what number I was thinking of eight times in a row." She turned toward her mother, who beamed. A long silence followed, and I knew I was expected to say something.

"Eight times in a row," I mused.

"You're not going to call that a coincidence, are you?" asked the psychic.

I directed a question to the groom: "How big were the numbers?"

"Between one and five."

Numbers, I thought to myself. Oh, how I like numbers. I took a sip of coffee and pondered for a moment.

"Eight trials, each trial having a probability of one-fifth..." I closed my eyes and spoke as if in a trance. "That would be one chance in about 400,000 -- "

"One chance in 390,625 to be exact!" said the psychic. Astonishment from the listeners around the table.

I raised my hand to object. "Of course, we are assuming 'Bernoulli trials'."

"Whoa!" someone taunted. "Bernoulli trials!"

I continued speaking under the laughter: "Bernoulli trials mean independent experiments with only two outcomes, success or failure."

"That's what they were," said the groom.

The phychic grunted.  "You won't believe it actually happened, will you," she said.

"May I ask you just one question?" I asked the groom.

"You already have," he joked.

"Why did you stop at eight?"

"I don't know what you mean," countered the groom.

"I'm just trying to visualize the scene. You and your sister have just conducted a most remarkable experiment. You guessed -- or read her mind -- correctly eight times in a row. Why not go for nine?"

"We were tired," said the sister with finality.

"Tired?" I asked the groom.

"How should I know? It was a long time ago."

"Another question, please -- I know, I said only one. But if your sister was tired, was it possibly because you had already done more than eight tests?"

The groom shook his head, but at the same time his sister blurted: "We did some warm-ups."

Now, I thought to myself, this is something to laugh about. I struggled to keep a straight face. "How many warm-ups?"

"What difference does that make?" interjected the psychic.

"The more warm-ups, the more statistically important they are," I explained. "Just as important may be the outcomes during the warm-ups. For example: The last warm-up was surely not a success, else it would have been counted along with the eight."

"Maybe, maybe not," said the groom. I noticed that the bride was tugging on his sleeve. I neglected to mention that the bride was my daughter.

"It's Bernoulli we have to satisfy," I said with a wave of the hand. "You just have to be careful in setting up such experiments to avoid the 'optional stopping' fallacy. 'Optional starting' can distort the math, too. But I won't ask any more questions."

"Go ahead," said the psychic. "What else does Bernoulli say?"

"How were the numbers selected?" I asked the groom's sister.

"I just thought each one up."

"At 'random'," I confirmed. "That's vital: Bernoulli cares a lot about that."

The groom's sister nodded tentatively.

"Did you write each number down or what?"

"Why should I? Anybody can remember one number. Besides I had to concentrate on it so my brother could read my mind."

"Did you write down your guesses?" I asked the brother.

He shook his head.

"So, then, you just told your sister what number you thought she was thinking of." I looked at the groom's sister, who averted my eyes. "And you told your brother each time, whether he got the number right or wrong."

She nodded, unsmiling now.

"Is that all you did?"

"I don't understand your question," said the sister.

"For example, did you tell your brother what the correct number was after he got it wrong?"


"So he did get some wrong."

"Only during the warm-ups," said the groom.

"You're sure about that?"

"Absolutely. Why?"

"Because a moment ago, you said there were no warm-ups."

The bride and groom were drawn away by the photographer toward a side table for the cake-cutting ceremony. He never looked me in the eye again. The marriage, by the way, lasted only a couple of years.

The psychic was annoyed with me. "So, you don't believe they had a telepathic experience. If you've made up your mind already, nothing we can say will change it. That's obvious. May I ask you a question?"

"Just one," I grinned.

Little did I know, one would be enough: Her question changed the way I think about the vulgar errors more profoundly than all of my own for the previous half century!

"Do you believe in anything?"

    Rationality has limits. Irrationality has none. My central observation over the years has been that people who believe in extrasensory perception also believe in -- well, extraterrestrials, say. Yet, one has little to do with the other. Believe in phrenology and you'll go for precognition. And psychic photography, too. Plus the occult, plus reincarnation, levitation, and so forth.

    In other words, believe in one, believe in all. The most prominent common attribute of believers is their steadfast determination to believe. They disbelieve only in disbelief. One expects there to be some items on a list of 50 that would be not quite believable.

That thought exploded in my mind as I pondered the psychic's question. "Do you believe in anything?" My answer was easy. "Yes, of course."

"What, then?" asked the psychic with a smirk. Others at the table leaned forward in unison. I studied the table cloth for a long moment.

"The triboelectric effect."

Though I'm not a psychic myself, I was sure I knew what she was thinking: Might this be a new item for her own belief-list?

The woman gestured for me to explain.

"Some people call it 'static electricity' -- you know, the cat's fur rubbed on the glass rod and the little pith balls hanging from threads; you make them fly apart, and -- well, I believe in that."

"Anything else?" she asked. The smirk was gone.

"George Washington," said I with mounting excitement. "Our first President, you know. I was not alive back then, but I think the evidence is mighty strong that Washington was our first President. Then there's gravity and inertia. Both have plenty of experimental evidence, and I -- reluctantly -- believe in them, too."

The psychic thought me strange. I picked up her vibrations.

"Here's what I want to say," I said. "I simply don't want to believe in these things. In fact, I do not want to believe in anything." My coffee was cold. I took a sip anyway. The moment was priceless. "The things I believe in are the things I cannot not believe in, because the evidence forces me to believe in them. Does that make sense to anyone?"

Nothing but stony looks from around the table. The conversation would end as suddenly as it began. I took a deep breath. "Please don't be offended," said I to the psychic. "But I'm sure that the main difference between you and me is, you want to believe and I don't."

Still delighted with what was for me a fundamental discovery, I telephoned my son the next week to share the insight with him. "There are two kinds of people," said I.

My son is taciturn. "Dichotomy," he mused.

"Those who believe in whatever-you-want-to-name and those who do not."


"Far more significant," I exclaimed, "is the fact that there are those who want to believe and those who do not."

Long silence. "Dyskeptia," said my son.

Perfect word, I think. Still, it doesn't appear in any dictionary.   So far.

Anything worth believing is worth first disbelieving.
-- Paul Niquette

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dyskeptia noun ~~ Disordered or impaired ability to doubt or disbelieve.{Return}