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Debra Goldman's Consumer Republic

  • June 18, 2001, 12:00 AM EDT
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Wouldn't you know it? Now that Timothy McVeigh has breathed his last, taking his secrets to the Great Beyond courtesy of the federal government, polls show that increasing numbers of Americans believe he did not act alone.

There's only one way to settle this: Get John Edward on the horn with the guy. Maybe he can put in a call to Lee Harvey Oswald while he's at it.

The former ballroom-dancing instructor who communes with the dead on the SciFi Channel's Crossing Over is the kind of breakout personality Emeril Lagasse was to the Food Network. (Just substitute "Boo!" for "Bam!") In its 11 p.m. slot, Crossing Over was the highest-rated show on SciFi, and it moved to weekday prime time two weeks ago.

This fall, those who don't get the channel and can't tell "sci" from "fi" will be able to catch John Edward's act in a syndicated afternoon strip. It will be the first time a cable show has—pardon the expression—crossed over to broadcast syndication.

And not for nothing. The many who have a financial stake in John Edward will be happy to know that, according to a recent Gallup poll, 28 percent of Americans believe itis possible to talk with the dead—10 percent more than in 1990.

Who can blame them? Based on what one hears on Crossing Over, the dead, who appear to be enjoying themselves on the Other Side, are considerably nicer to be with than the living. They never complain or express regret or chew out that bum of a son-in-law.

No, they are unfailingly supportive and reassuring. Better yet, they never miss a christening or an anniversary. (Indeed, they're a lot like angels, the objects of that witless mid-'90s craze, who in turn closely resemble extraterrestrials.)

The living seem to get a lot of tearful pleasure out of this. One feels a little churlish begrudging one young matron the comfort and joy she feels now that she "knows for sure," thanks to John Edward, that her deceased father danced with her at her wedding.

As will surprise no one who lived through The Celestine Prophesy and the 50th anniversary of the Roswell incident during the gaga '90s, the Gallup poll shows that belief in the psychic and paranormal is up almost across the board. Belief in witches is up 12 percent since 1990; 42 percent of us believe in haunted houses (an increase of 13 percent); and one-third believe we have been visited by extraterrestrials (up 6 percent).

Of the 13 phenomena Gallup presented to its respondents, only one lost ground over the decade: possession by the devil, though a healthy 41 percent still believe in that.

Before the skeptics and rationalists—a minority of the population in most cases, according to Gallup—dismiss this as delusions of the unwashed, consider this: The most widely held belief, according to the survey, is the one that affirms "psychic or spiritual healing or the power of the human mind to heal the body," to which 54 percent ascribed. The more educated the respondent, the more likely he or she was to believe it: A full 65 percent of those with postgraduate degrees professed a belief in mind over body.

Little wonder, then, that a lot of MBAs, LLDs and MDs were aghast to learn of a new study, outlined in The New York Times, questioning the widely accepted placebo effect. The study showed placebos produce the same recovery rates as no treatment at all—their "proven" effectiveness apparently not a demonstration of the healing power of the mind but the result of bad statistical analysis.

Yet I doubt one study will shake the faith of the majority. The notion that the ills of the body can be cured by the mind satisfies our well-known craving for control, just as communing with the dead fulfills our fantasy of life without loss. Needs like these are why magical thinking is always with us.

But why, at the turn of the cen tury, is it with us quite so much?

For one thing, there is the "knowledge" revolution, the unmediated flood of information which has swept away the power of authority and utterly blurred the line between skepticism and gullibility. Add to this a post-modernist relativism that renders truth a personal opinion, making it politically incorrect to label believers in ghosts the credulous nitwits they really are.

Finally, in a period of unparalleled material well-being, we are witnessing a growing obsession with the immaterial that goes under the smug rubric of "spirituality"—although, happily for the economy, being "spiritual" usually means not wanting less, but more.