Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Why We Believe

Why We Believe
By Jamie Hale

Have you ever wondered why people believe things when there is no evidence to support their beliefs,but tons of evidence indicating the belief is false. Why do people believe calories don’t matter, the world is 6000 years old, paranormal claims, homeopathy cures, dietary supplement magic, virgin giving birth, and so on? Shermer tackles this question in Why People Believe Weird Things. Shermer points out there is no single reason people believe weird things, but there are a few common reasons, including (ch. seventeen) : the belief is consoling, immediate gratification, morality and meaning (if you can’t believe in something higher or divine you lack morality, so they say),and hope springs eternal. In chapter 18 shermer asks Why Smart People Believe Weird Things. The chapter begins with this quote “When men wish to construct or support a theory, how they torture facts into their service!” John Mackay. Isn’t that the truth. Shermer says “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”

Pages: 59-60 Shermer Why People Believe Weird Things

“In day-to-day life, as in science, we all resist fundamental paradigm change. Social scientist Jay Stuart Snelson calls this resistance an ideological immune system: “educated, intelligent, and successful adults rarely change their most fundamental presuppositions” (1993, p.54). According to Snelson, the more knowledge individuals have accumulated, and the more well-founded their theories have become (and remember, we all tend to look for and remember confirmatory evidence, not counterevidence), the greater the confidence in their ideologies. The consequence of this, however, is that we build up and “immunity” against new ideas that do not corroborate previous ones. Historians of science call this the Planck Problem, after physicist Mac Planck, who made this observation on what must happen for innovation to occur in science: “An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing generation is familiarized with the idea from the beginning” (1936, p.97).” The ideological immune system often becomes problematic for graduate students. The problem occurs once students rely to heavily on guidance from instructors, or only look at some of the evidence. Acknowledging only sources that support the University’s biases, but neglecting sources that contradict (confirmation bias)strengthens the ideological immune system. To combat this problem students should look at all the available data ( within reason). This is often a long and tedious process, but it is necessary if gaining real knowledge is the objective.

I would agree with the points Shermer makes, and I would further add, people don’t always believe what they say they believe. Why do they say it? A detailed discussion of why they say they believe is not the objective of this article (refer to Daniel Dennett's Breaking The Spell). However, I would like to mention two of the most common reasons people say they believe what they don't believe-to avoid confrontation and prevent discomfort to friends or family. To illustrate my point, consider the rational individual that believes in the *virgin birth (virgin, person who has never had sex) of Christ. They probably really don’t believe this nonsense, but the spouse and friends hold this belief dear to their heart and they believe thinking anything but that would be horrible. It is easier for the pretend believer to agree. For many people the issue of abortion or religion are touchy subjects and any discussion is meaningless, as their emotions overwhelm their rationality. In these instances even a generally rational person may become irrational. The more they have invested in this belief the harder it becomes for them to abandon it, or at least the harder for them to admit they abandon it.

* virgin birth myth is derived from a mistranslation of ‘young woman’ into ‘virgin’ in the biblical account.

Many weird things are taught on the basis of faith (belief without any evidence). Once blind faith is established then any belief can be justified. From a very young age many children are taught that they should not question authority (teachers, religion, health professionals and so on), have faith. Promoting this attitude is a dangerous road to travel. It is also important that we separate blind faith from science. It’s fine to have faith (maybe, and depends on strength of faith and faith in what) if you would like, but don’t make the mistake of trying to disguise faith as science (e.g. creation science, which is not science). I find it comical when religious (of various religions) fanatics attempt to classify science as a religion. Religion is based on mounds and mounds of faith and delusional testimonials. Science is based on observable, testable, falsifiable, replicable and measureable evidence. Religion does not fall under the umbrella of science, as it is faith based and the very essence of faith, to reiterate, is belief in the absense of evidence.

No wonder society is so gullible regarding the dietary supplement industry, religious doctrine, governmental policies, self help myths, etc. It’s really not that hard to understand why people fall for all the nonsense they are exposed to on a daily basis, considering they have been taught their entire lives not to question authority and some things you just have to believe, regardless of how irrational they seem.

Suggested Readings

Dennett, D (2006). Breaking the Spell: Religion As A Natural Phenomenon. Viking.

Flesch, R (1951). The Art of Clear Thinking. Barnes & Noble Books.

Gilovich, T (1991). How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. The Free Press.

Shermer, M (2002). Why People Believe Weird Things. Owl Books.

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