The Power of Belief

Tom Shipka

We're not far away from the holiday shopping season when all of us will be searching for gifts for special people in our lives. I have a suggestion of a gift that is inexpensive, educational, and entertaining and that is suitable for either adults or children aged twelve or older. It will also make a superb addition to the media collection of a local school or library. I'm referring to a forty-five minute film entitled The Power of Belief which first aired as an ABC News Special hosted by John Stossel on October 6, 1998. It can be purchased online in DVD or video tape format at at a cost of $29.95 for home use and a higher price for institutional use.
The Power of Belief is four things: a critique of paranormal claims and practitioners, an illustration of self-delusion, a demonstration of how stubbornly we cling to cherished beliefs which lack evidence, and an invitation to critical thinking. It proposes that we use a double standard in evaluating claims. In some cases we demand proof. For instance, if I am buying a used car, I'll likely examine it carefully to make sure that it runs well and doesn't need expensive repairs. But in other cases, we don't demand proof. For instance, if I get a fatal cancer diagnosis and I'm told that an experimental drug available only in Mexico can save me, I'll quickly book a flight to Mexico. Here we suspend our critical faculties because we want to believe.
Each segment of the film illustrates one or more of these themes.
A stock broker convinces himself that he is levitating when he is actually only bouncing on a mattress.
Fire-walkers who believe that they have special powers discover to their amazement that anyone can fire-walk on wood embers simply because wood is a poor conductor of heat.
Psychics who claim to possess the power to move or change objects without touching them - psychokinesis - are unmasked by James Randi as conjurers.
A voodoo priest who puts a curse on John Stossel fails.
Therapeutic touch practitioners consistently fail to demonstrate their powers in a simple test designed by a nine-year old school girl.
The members of a group of students who are given a sugar pill but told that it is a stimulant report greater energy while the members of the group who are told that it is a sleeping pill report improved sleep.
A victim of Hodgkin's Disease dies after she abandons traditional treatment in favor of alternative medicine.
James Randi fools the media and hundreds of thousands of people in Australia into believing that a man that he has trained to pose as a channeler actually has the power to contact the dead.
A Texas police chief shows that a psychic detective is either self-deluded or a fraud.
A group of people who are given a horoscope of a mass murderer are convinced that it accurately describes them.
A U.S. Navy aerospace scientist offers a natural explanation of so-called near-death experiences based on his experience with pilots in a centrifuge.
Other segments deal with children who perceive a non-existent fox in a box, the use of cold and warm reading techniques by psychics, a faith healer, and the James Randi $1 Million Challenge. Despite the passage of time since The Power of Belief first aired, it remains an outstanding educational film which is worth your time and money.

© Tom Shipka 2007