Based on his knowledge, Miguel Ángel Sabadell, graduate in Astrophysics and PhD in Theoretical Physics, dismantles in his book “Strange Phenomena” (Pinolia Editorial) the myths about the existence of extraterrestrials, ghosts, parapsychology or demonic possessions, with some cases that have been highly publicized over the last decades, but that are nourished by a greater dose of faith than critical thinking.
What led you to investigate and write to dismantle these beliefs?
My interest in strange phenomena was born in adolescence, mostly because the late 70’s and early 80’s was the golden age of the paranormal. I began to be interested in UFOs, especially those that defended the visit of extraterrestrials in past times. Von Däniken, Peter Kolosimo… made it clear that the poor Egyptians and the naive Incas – who did not know the wheel! – had received help from outer space to be able to build their spectacular constructions. But at the same time I was reading popular science, and a peculiar mental process began to happen in my brain. The UFO books began to seem banal to me and their arguments naive and bland. Over time, and already in the world of popular science, I have wanted to share these reflections with the rest of society, but not to convince, but rather to show what is really behind them.
What example do you think is most striking that was accepted as real?
The one that most strikes me because of its persistence is the false mystery of the Bermuda Triangle. Anyone asked will say it’s a place in the Atlantic where ships and planes disappear like bugs. However, it is estimated that in the last century in that area of the ocean there have been at most 10 disasters a year, a fairly modest number for one of the areas with the most marine and air traffic in the world. That means that whatever is dedicated to swallowing what passes by there is not very hungry. We are facing a manufactured mystery, but the most incredible thing –mysterious even– is that very few seem to know about it, despite the fact that it was solved more than 40 years ago by the work and grace of a pilot and librarian from the University of Arizona, Lawrence Kusche, which in 1974 collected and published all the existing information on these mysterious disappearances. By studying the original sources he discovered that there was no mystery.
Which of all the phenomena you talk about in your book raises the most doubts about its existence?
The fundamental problem when you face these phenomena is that all the information depends on the word of the witnesses. Now that is mysterious: paranormal phenomena have a tendency to leave no physical evidence, it is as if they did it on purpose. So if we only rely on what the witness claims to have seen, we are in serious trouble deciding what he actually saw. Because human memory modifies, invents and adapts our memories so that they are consistent with our beliefs and desires. That is why you cannot uncritically accept any testimony from any person, whatever qualification they may have. Saying this offends ufologists a lot, because for them pilots are tremendously qualified witnesses to identify objects flying through the sky. And it’s not true: they are tremendously qualified to identify planes in the sky, nothing more.
What role does psychology play in these beliefs?
All. Let’s take, for example, the belief in spiritualism or in the existence of the afterlife. Nobody likes the idea of dying, which has led to the appearance throughout history of multiple beliefs, many of which have become organized religions. All of them share the same thought: it is unacceptable to think that everything ends with death and nothing survives. Faced with this dilemma, we do not claim to find the right solution; we seek, not the truth, but what reassures us. We need certainties to live, real or illusory, that extinguish the anguish of death, and one of these certainties is that we never cease to exist. In the end, it is the same psychological mechanisms that we use in our daily lives that lead us to believe in paranormal phenomena. The cerebral mechanisms by which we end up believing that someone is our friend are the same as those that make us trust the testimony of someone who tells us that he has been abducted by aliens.
And the economic interests when promoting them?
In general, they do not have much influence, despite the fact that certain topics, such as clairvoyance or quackery, are a business. And not exactly a bad deal. For me they are the most bloody cases, because seers and healers take advantage of the bad moments that we all go through throughout our lives; they are, purely and simply, merchants of hope. In particular, I consider quackery one of the most pernicious practices that exist, although many of them present themselves as martyrs of what they call “official medicine”, when they are hucksters. The medicine that they reviled so much has caused our life expectancy to go from 30 to 70 years in less than a century and healers have not added a second in their more than 3,000 years of existence.
Why is he turning now to crazy theories like flat earth?
They are simply fashions that fall into favor on social networks. I think that many of the flat earthers are for fashion, for going against the current or for wanting to touch their noses on social networks. Keep in mind that we live in a conspiracy society that loves to believe in cabals of all kinds. Flat Earth is like the trip to the Moon: a conspiracy theory.
What role do certain television programs and now social networks play in the dissemination of these events?
Fundamental, as myth propagators. And what defines them is an absolute absence of a critical spirit, of checking sources, of serious and rigorous research. In essence, they build and spread fake news. But that’s not the worst: what worries me is that for some time now we find scientists participating in pseudoscientific programs, either as guests or with a fixed section. An example is Fourth Millennium. Numerous scientists have passed through there, and among them first swords such as the Prince of Asturias Awards Juan Ignacio Cirac, a physicist expert in quantum computing, and Bermúdez de Castro, co-director of Atapuerca. Place world-renowned scientists next to photographs of ghosts or the Bermuda triangle – what message do these scientists think they are conveying to viewers? That Kirlian photography and the quantum computer should be put on the same level? What is clear is the motive of the director of the program: to give it an air of respectability, to put the stamp of “program endorsed by science.”
Are less educated people more gullible?
Certainly not, because believing in a mysterious world around us does not depend on the education received. In fact, the opposite can happen. In 1994, together with the physicist Fernando Salamero, we carried out a survey on the belief in extraterrestrial life, and among the correlations we found there was a very striking one: unlike in the US, those with a lower educational level were the least likely to believe in it. extraterrestrial life. Finding meaning in the world is essential to understanding human attitudes, and one of the mechanisms to achieve this is to deny chance and embrace causality. The amount of chance that we are capable of accepting without affecting our sense of life is one of those things that distinguishes some people from others; while for some chance and luck govern part of our lives, for others there is always a reason that explains what seems to be simple coincidences. And this is independent of the education received.
If the phenomena have adaptations to each culture, why does the belief in UFOs remain stable across cultures and over time?
Actually the belief in UFOs is a purely Western product; you do not have it among the African Fang, where disasters are attributed to the action of witches. What’s more, the UFO myth has an American stamp, which is where it was born: that’s where they are seen the most, where more people are kidnapped, where more sexual relations with aliens are maintained… The only thing the rest of the world has done is buy their UFO stories like we bought McDonald’s hamburgers. In fact, we live immersed in the myth: if we see a light in the sky, someone will quickly say that it is a UFO, but not referring to an unidentified flying object but to what my good friend Félix Ares calls them, PONEBID: Portentous Extraterrestrial Ship with Smart Bug Inside. But look at the detail: it’s actually a light in the sky, not an object. Which explanation do you find less fanciful to explain it: a Star Trek-style spaceship or a fire-breathing dragon from Middle-earth? Regardless of whether you believe in UFOs or not, the first one will surely seem less crazy to you. Why? Simply because in our culture aliens are part of the stereotype we have of the universe where, on the other hand, dragons do not fit, although both concepts are (for now) totally imaginary. It’s hard to get rid of the stereotypes of a culture when we live within it.
Does being a religious person imply denying these phenomena? Or is it the opposite?
It depends on whether it conflicts with your faith. An orthodox Jew is not going to buy you any story of demonic possession but a Christian is. The paranormal is a belief system like Catholicism and the clearest proof of that is that it always asks if you believe in ghosts, UFOs, psychics… like when they ask you if you believe in God. Thus, anthropologists have been studying for some time what we can call the UFO religion, which has its sacred books, its places of pilgrimage, its prophets… I remember that many years ago they did an interview with the Spanish ufologist Juan José Benítez and in it he said that he was convinced that those who dedicated themselves to ufology did not do it by chance, that somehow they were predestined for it before they were born. And in a debate in which I participated on the same subject, during question time an attendee stood up and with great emotion blurted out to me that to see UFOs you had to believe in UFOs. If all this is not proof that we are dealing with a religion… The same thing happens with the belief in spirits, which was established as a religion in the mid-nineteenth century thanks to the books of the Frenchman Allan Kardec.