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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Don't Think of an Elephant!

The guest at this month's PhACT meeting was Kenneth Biddle of the Paranormal Investigators and Research Association, who spoke on the topic ""Orbs or Dust? A Practical Guide to False Positives." When the role of expectations in alleged "electronic voice phenomena" came up, I was reminded of what I thought I heard in a news segment years ago, and led to wonder if I'd heard the same thing others had. So I GoodSearched for "Mr. Ed" plus "satanic message," and what I saw on the TV Acres site led me to write them the following:

On your page about Mr. Ed you write, "It's not true that if you play the MISTER ED theme song backwards you will hear a satanic message." This is actually a rather nonsensical statement on your part. The only reason you're mentioning it is that some people have heard a satanic message there. I'm one of those people, so I know your statement is untrue as applied to myself.

It was probably twenty years ago, and I heard it in a TV news segment about a couple of Christian radio DJs who said they'd discovered it unexpectedly while playing various TV themes backward. When they played it for the news show, it sounded to me like, "Someone sung this song for Satan."

Now, I'll certainly allow that I may have heard this only because I'd been "primed" for it by the news story (as the DJs may have been primed by stories about "backward masking" in heavy metal). Nonetheless, I did hear it — and presumably would hear it again, given the opportunity — so your statement is false.

Perhaps I'm meant to take your statement only as meaning that, if I do hear such a message, it's my own imagination. This seems highly likely, but I wouldn't need you to tell me that — and if I were the kind of person who would, I probably wouldn't believe you anyway. In fact, by mentioning this rumor without explaining how such priming works, you are likely causing more people, rather than fewer, to believe it. The people disinclined to believe would already disbelieve, while those inclined to believe might be hearing this story for the first time, and ask themselves how you can be so sure that it isn't true. (After all, how can you?) Some may even go to the trouble of finding such a backward recording or making their own and, having had the idea put in their heads by you, hear exactly that.

Telling people who've given credence to such rumors to "grow up" will not impress them. They'll probably think you're naive (even a "dupe of Satan") in dismissing something like this as ridiculous. If you really want to promote critical thinking, you'll have to get a better handle on the psychology of belief than you seem to have at present.

Eric Hamell

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