You only have to look at the goofy headlines on tabloids at the supermarket to sense that Barry Singer and Victor A. Benassi are right. Preoccupation with the occult has indeed become "a pervasive part of our culture.
And as the two psychologists point out in American Scientist in describing studies of this pervasiveness, the media share a large part of the blame. Gullible editors, reporters, and TV anchorpeople -- as well as cynical publicists out to make a buck -- have given supernatural beliefs, including uncritical belief in UFOs, wide public credibility. It is past time that responsible media managers and their staffs took themselves in hand in this area.
Singer, who is at California State University at Long Beach, and Benassi, who is visiting there, are right in saying: "When the lay person hears about New Zealand UFOs from Walter Cronkite or reads about new frontiers in psychic healing in a front-page article in the Los Angeles Times. . ., he has prima facie reasons for believing such phenomena valid."
However, they are being naive themselves when they charitably attribute such reports to "inherent difficulties of science reporting." Nonsense! They are due primarily to the failure of responsible media people to subject this category of news to the kind of tough-minded evaluation they routinely give political stories.
Stories about UFOs or the occult are considered "brighteners" -- something to be thrown in to entertain readers or viewers. There is a tacit (sometimes explicit) assumption that, if the story later turns out to erroneous, no great harm will have been done.
Well a great deal of harm has been done. Singer and Benassi point out that "occult beliefs have increased dramatically in the United States during the last two decades. . .. Garden-variety occultisms such as astrology and ESP [ extrasensory perception] have swelled to historically unprecedented levels. . .. Belief in ESP, for instance, is consistently found to be moderate or strong in 80 to 90 percent of our population."
Media responsibility for encouraging this growth is only one aspect of the situation which the two scientists examine in their article. They also look at such factors as widespread inability to reason correctly or social unrest in fostering ill- founded beliefs. It is a complex situation with no chief culprit.
Nevertheless, the responsibility of the media is clear. Its managers have taken this area of news too lightly. They need to exercise intelligent editorial control to ensure that their publications or broadcasts do not foster outmoded and potentially destructive superstition s.