The truth is out there. Probably

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Perhaps it's irrational to worry about a rising tide of superstition - to communicate with Mars, converse with spirits, describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry: all these are usual pastimes and drugs, and features of the press, and always have been. But there has been a splurge of the stuff just lately: the embarrassing credulity of Fortean TV, the sudden popularity of magazines about "unexplained phenomena", and Talk Radio's inauguration on Thursday of a Paranormal Day - it all combines to make the determinedly rational mind a tad uneasy.

To be fair, there was a nice tone of scepticism about much of Paranormal Day. But is there ever any justification for giving airtime to people like the "dream detective", who claims to predict acts of terrorism and delays in public transport through symbolically charged experiences in the land of Nod? There's also a danger inherent in the whole idea of swallowing "the Paranormal" in one big lump like this - bundling together all these strands of superstition (alien abductions, ghosts, ESP, vampires) means that you never properly examine the contradictions between them. Reports of fascinating times with the ouija board and mysterious objects floating over Luton Airport become mutually supportive: science is the common enemy, and any attack on it is a blow for an irrational worldview.

Of course, some people realise the flaws in this approach, and work from a different angle. One caller to Scott Chisholm proposed a sort of Grand Unification Theory of Loopiness, claiming that all manifestations of the paranormal, from UFOs to messages from the spirit world, were evidence of beings from another dimension, who have set out to mystify and annoy us (presumably they don't have radio phone-ins in that dimension and need other outlets). If we must have madness, a little method makes it more bearable.

But most people don't need a theoretical framework; nothing will persuade them out of their faith in the inadequacy of reason. My favourite was the man who phoned Tommy Boyd up with a story of mysterious footsteps in the night which could, he insisted, only be explained by a ghost. Did he have a tape, Tommy asked. Yes, said the man, but playing it would be pointless since it didn't sound particularly like footsteps.

It's worth comparing Genesis Radio, a pirate station that sometimes interferes with the reggae pirate station that usually interferes with Radio 3 round our way. Genesis's agenda is based on black consciousness - most of the ads are for Saturday schools offering extra tuition in maths, English and "black history" ("Without history, we are lost"). Last week I caught a riveting lecture on Afrocentric history, which maintained that, for example, the Library of Alexandria contained great histories of African civilisations, and that African rulers only sold their subjects as slaves to the white man because slavery in Africa was actually a pretty benevolent institution.

Some of this was a useful and necessary corrective to the excessively Eurocentric history most of us have learnt; about the same amount was patent nonsense; rather more was blind conjecture unsupported by evidence. What's interesting about this and about the nutters on Talk Radio's Paranormal Day is that they reject academic authority: the careful accumulation of evidence and scrupulous reference to sources which are the foundation of science and history are chucked out of the window. Then again, you might argue that rejection of received ideas is the basis of all original thought. Perhaps the nutters, the guessers and the fanatics are the price we have to pay for a thoughtful, intellectually enquiring populace. If that's so, maybe - just maybe - it's worth it.

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