When you’re sitting in a public place, do you ever “feel someone looking at you” — and then turn around to find out it’s true? In the scientific community, people have investigated whether it’s possible to sense when a person is looking at you. The resounding answer from these studies is “no”. And still, plenty of people still post to sites like Yahoo Answers speculating that “brain waves” can cause it to happen. Why is the belief of a “sixth sense for staring” so hard to shake off?
Robert Sheldrake is partly responsible for this kind of belief sticking around. He published a book claiming that subjects in his experiments could detect staring better than if they were randomly guessing. Subsequently, several researchers tried to reproduce his results — and the majority of them weren’t able to. This back-and-forth was covered in a 2005 issue of Scientific American, and in the science blogging community. When the “staring sense” was debunked so publicly, why didn’t this become part of mainstream knowledge?
The problem is that although the unreliability of Sheldrake’s results was reported on, they were in Scientific American — not a magazine that everybody subscribes to. And while science blogging is aiming at educating people in a more accessible way, it’s not clear who the readers acually are. Scientists need to come up with more ways for communicating with the public when they *know* that they have people’s attention.
Another problem is that Sheldrake’s book is still out there for anyone to read. And people are reading it and being convinced by his arguments, as just one personal blog post shows. People have a hard time telling apart real science and pseudo-science — perhaps teaching this skill is something that should be emphasized more in school. And of course, people are much more impressed by a positive finding (like Sheldrake’s studies) than by people who aren’t able to reproduce that finding (an issue recently discussed at the science blog The Invisible Gorilla).
Perhaps the strongest reason for why many people still believe in a sixth sense for staring is that it’s such a widespread phenomenon. Of course, it can be explained by the fact that people who turn around after thinking they’re being started at actually get stares because of their head-turning. But who wants to listen to logic when there’s hope of a sixth sense?