Once upon a time, hundreds of years ago, there existed a species called homo sapiens. They had an enormous amount of processing power, an excellent ability to match patterns, and a level of consciousness and self awareness that had never existed before.
They understood many of the things they saw in the world, but others were mysteries. It wasn't that they couldn't process what was around them, but rather that they hadn't developed the context for it. Seeing giant bolts of lightning strike down from the sky must have been terrifying. Nothing in their experience could begin to explain such a thing.
If we can simplify a bit and say that scientists' jobs are to figure out all of the causes and effects, it could be said that we've always been scientists, albeit bad ones. Cave men started noticing correlations and assigned meaning to them. Maybe they saw a white bird, and the next day it rained. How could they know that the white bird didn't cause that rain?
Some phenomena didn't seem to have direct causes, or maybe sometimes the correlations spotted didn't line up anymore. It rained, but no one in the tribe saw a white bird. Searching for meaning, our ancestors imagined supernatural beings, and nonsense was born.
It's easy and comforting to ascribe meaning to what we don't understand. It doesn't require mental rigor, and it's strangely pleasant to imagine that something bad that happened was the result of an angered spirit, rather than completely at random.
Once nonsense began, it flourished. More people began to communicate, and nonsense spread in the form of superstition and it's identical twin, religion. These constructs helped people deal with the brutality of everyday life and gave them purpose. Religions tended to mix a good amount of contemporary morality into the mix, so they actually got people to do good things sometimes.
Unfortunately for nonsense, its position in human consciousness is forever in jeopardy. As science and reason have developed, they have clashed with superstition, and have won every single time. To even the most entrenched brainwashee of religion, religious beliefs one hundred years old must look ridiculous.
Those who indulge in such nonsense find themselves clinging to a smaller and smaller iceberg, floating on a warm sea of reason. Every day bits of the unknown-but-possibly-explained-by-supernatural-phenomenon slide over into the realm of reason. We understand more every day.
The irony, of course, is that if science and the supernatural were both valid, supernatural would have an enormous advantage, because science's own rules would force it to be recognized. All a god would have to do would be to make himself known publicly for five seconds, and every scientist would change his mind instantly. One psychic would have to subject themselves to science's rules for rigor just once, and they would prove forever that such powers exist.
I don't fault our earliest ancestors for indulging in nonsense. They were born into a scary and harsh world that has offered all of the answers, but at a glacial pace. We know better now. We can see the track record science has versus nonsense, and this should scare us away from it. Just because science doesn't have an answer for something yet doesn't mean that nonsense's answer is valid.
Although IQ is negatively correlated with believing in nonsense, there are still a lot of very smart people who believe in things like gods, psychics, astrology, and other supernatural powers. Some of those people were brainwashed from an early age to believe in religion, which is hardly their fault. Others need certainty so badly that they find it in the form of nonsense rather than live with the uncertainty of not knowing.
Some dabble in it. A family member of mine believes in astrology, at least to some degree. She argues that it's not harming her, so why not?
I'd say that it is harmful, because it steals her focus away from reality. If it doesn't affect her decisions at all, then it's a waste of time. If it does, then it's harmful. It's also a rejection of the reality that some things happen at random, and that some things are unknown to us.
If this post has made you angry, there's a good chance that you believe in nonsense. I don't expect what I've written to change anyone's mind immediately, and to only change a few people's minds in the long run. My hope is that it will spark some critical thinking about these sorts of topics, and that if you're entrenched in what I call nonsense, you might have an additional filter through which to see things, which eventually might cause you to have a more rational perspective on life.
Photo is modern art (sometimes nonsense, in my uneducated opinion) in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Get it-- man in the sky?
Just got back from a very productive island trip. Update coming at some point!