UCO’s Dr. Gary Steward Jr., associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts, is receiving national attention for his recent study of trends in paranormal beliefs among college students.
The study was conducted with colleague Dr. Bryan Farha at Oklahoma City University.
Farha has appeared on “Larry King Live” and “National Geographic” to present his findings.
“He actually had the idea,” Steward said.
Steward said Farha found a 2001 Gallup poll that listed 13 paranormal beliefs such as extrasensory perception, psychic or spiritual healing, telepathy, haunted houses, demon possession and aliens.
“I’ve always been very interested in religious movements,” Steward said. Cults and Followings, Deviant Religious Movements and Sociology of Evil are some of the courses Steward teaches at UCO.
He said he did his dissertation on the metaphysical movement.
“I’ve had this interest for at least 15 years and this is what the bulk of my research has entailed,” Steward said.
He said he and Farha thought it would be interesting to conduct a poll that would focus specifically on college students, since the Gallup poll selects random people of all ages.
They used the same form as the Gallup poll, which allowed people to indicate whether they believe, are uncertain or don’t believe in the paranormal.
Their study covered universities in Oklahoma and Texas, including UCO.
Over 400 surveys were tallied, but hundreds more were thrown out because they were incomplete.
“Then we simply crunched the numbers and looked at simple frequencies along all categories,” Steward said. He said the results were nearly identical to the national poll, except for some “interesting exceptions.”
Far fewer Oklahoma college students believe in extrasensory perception, telepathy, communication with the dead, astrology and reincarnation than the national Gallup poll.
“What we find interesting about these special cases is that they tend to be beliefs that are proscribed by conventional religion,” Steward said.
He explained that “Prescriptions are the ‘thou shalls’ and proscriptions are the “thou shalt nots.”
“These are things you don’t do if you embrace conventional religion and in this context I’m really talking about the religion that dominates this region and that’s Christianity in its various forms.”
Areas that relate to Christianity, however, such as demonic possession, remained almost the same both locally and nationally.
Steward said he expected more skepticism as people attained more education, but he found that a greater percentage of believers in all paranormal categories.
“That was really contrary to what we expected,” Steward said. “In other words, freshmen believed less than seniors or graduate students.”
Steward said there are two problems with the survey he and Farha could not fix because they were committed to reproducing the exact survey used by the Gallop poll, which caused their findings to become misrepresented in some publications.
“I criticize the instrument that was used, but because we wanted to compare the Gallup poll, we were married to it,” Steward said.
He said the way some questions were worded could have misled student responses. For example, a question asking about belief in psychic healing includes the mind’s power to heal the body, something that people may believe in, but not necessarily psychic healing. These are called methodological problems and may affect the results, he said.
One of the methodological problems is that the results are not applicable to all colleges. He said Oklahoma’s location in the “Bible Belt” likely affected the results, as could age, experience and the media.
“When you begin to flesh out the belief system of humans, you find out that we are quite complex,” Steward said. “We couldn’t take this sample and say it applies to college students across the country, there will be regional differences.”
Another issue Steward and Farha have never stated a cause and effect relationship has existed between college and paranormal believing.
“We never stated that there was a cause and effect between college and paranormal believing,” he said.
“We have never stated that college means or leads to more paranormal believing,” Steward said, “But it is interesting and I think it opens up discussion and discourse and perhaps some more research in this area.”
He said that if he continues this research, he would like to craft a new survey that he could test for validity and reliability before doing any research.
Steward he does not hold any beliefs in the paranormal.
“I strongly doubt the veracity of any of these paranormal dimensions,” he said. “Most of what I have seen can be explained to other factors that were not paranormal.”
“It’s really created a flurry of interest,” Steward said. “This kind of interest tends to fuel more interest and I would hope that researchers across the country would pick this topic up and continue the research.”
Kevan Campbell, creative studies graduate, said he doesn’t know if aliens exist.
“They could exist. I’m open to the idea they could exist, I just don’t know for sure.”
Campbell said he does not believe in telepathy or other psychic phenomenon, but that he believes in demon possession and the possibility of haunted houses.
“I don’t know for sure if they’re haunted, but I believe there are different spiritual things that go on in houses,” Campbell said.
Kyndal Black, public relations senior said she believes in psychic phenomena, out-of-body experiences and aliens.
“I think it’s very selfish of us to think that out of all the planets and all the universe that we’re the only ones that God put beings on,” Black said.
Barrett Dye, political science junior said, “All of my paranormal stuff has to do with the spirit world like demons, and I guess ghosts can be a form of demon. I don’t know.”
He said he was in his dorm room earlier this week when his roommate’s horseshoe fell off the wall, the toilet seat slammed shut and he completely lost phone service, all within 10 seconds of each other.
“Sometimes I wonder if it’s really real,” Dye said, but when it comes to aliens, he said, “No chance.”
Cassie Neahring, marketing sophomore said, “My belief in the supernatural goes with my faith. I believe there are angels and demons on the earth.”
When it comes to faith healing, Neahring said she is skeptical.
“I think that God does any healing on the earth, but I believe that he listens to people’s requests. I believe that it has to do with his will, not peoples’ power,” she said.
“I think humans are spiritual beings and their spirit never dies,” Neahring said when asked if she believes in ghosts. “Once our souls leave the earth, we don’t have a choice to come back. And if you’re in heaven, you won’t want to come back.”
She said she doesn’t rule out the idea of aliens, but that she doesn’t have any strong beliefs about it.
Meredith Scott, community health freshman, said, “I don’t think ghosts are real.”
She said she is not sure about demon possession, but that she doesn’t believe in aliens, reincarnation,or mind-reading.
“The mind is way too complex and there’s no way anybody could ever read a mind. You can read emotions on someone’s face, but I don’t think you can read a mind ever,” Scott said.
Erin Abernathy, pre-med freshman said she doesn’t believe in aliens and reincarnation, but that she does believe in demon possession and she isn’t sure about psychics or ghosts.
“I think that there might be something out there, but I haven’t experienced anything for myself,” Abernathy said.