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WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE
I have long been troubled at many people's cavalier approach to the notion of truth, which is why I wrote my short essay on "The reason for truth" [click here], and the reluctance of people to think for themselves, which is why I crafted some tips on "How to think critically" [click here]. As I thought more about these things, I wondered why so many people believe so many weird things.
What do I mean by weird things? I mean beliefs that lack reason and rationality and are supported by very little or no evidence.
So, while I have deep respect for people with religious views, especially when this leads to ethical and moral behaviour, I am profoundly sceptical of all metaphysical and paranormal concepts and ideas such as God, the Devil, angels, ghosts, spirits, Heaven, Hell, grace, sin, miracles and the efficacy of prayer. Equally I am unconvinced of the existence of physical notions for which there is little or no evidence such as UFOs, aliens, alien architecture and alien abductions. I reject very strongly the theories of young earth creationism and intelligent design.
I am opposed intellectually to all non-rational modes of thought and therefore I am profoundly sceptical of the validity of aura, shakra, reiki, clairvoyance, telepathy, psychokinesis, spirituality, astrology, cosmic ordering, crystals, feng shui, labyrinths, dowsing, horoscopes, prophecies, numerology, faith healing, complementary medicine, homeopathy, miracle cures, and conspiracy theories. I reject very strongly the idea of Holocaust denial.
In short: there is no evidence for any of these things, so I do not believe in them.
So why do people believe weird things? It is too easy - and insulting - to dismiss people who believe such things as silly or stupid or delusional. People who hold odd beliefs are often intelligent and thoughtful. Indeed intelligent people can be specially prone to believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-rational reasons. People who believe strange things usually hold these views with great sincerity and passion. They should be respected and one should make a genuine effort to understand why they hold that belief. As the 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza put it: "I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them".
There are many, many reasons why people believe weird things. Here are 36 reasons:
So how on earth do we know what to believe? Let us take a simple case to make the illustration clear: the theory that the sun rises each morning because the earth rotates around the sun rather than any other explanation such as a ritualistic act of worship each evening to the god of the sun. Here are some useful tests:
- What people believe is influenced enormously by their personal upbringing and their societal culture. We all understand this about relatively small and 'closed' communities, so we appreciate that the people who live in an Amish community in the United States will have very different beliefs from those in an isolated tribe of the Amazon in Brazil. But the same is true for much larger and more open communities. Belief in young earth creationism and alien abduction is much more common throughout the USA than in Europe; belief in the efficacy of Chinese medicine is much more extensive in China than in Japan; a belief that 9/11 was brought about by the Jews is much more accepted in Arab countries than in Israel. The fact that a particular belief is held by most or many of one's fellow citizens does not make it necessarily wrong, but equally it does not necessarily make it right. In every case, we need to assess the available evidence and, where necessary, seek further evidence from reputable sources and/or controlled tests.
- People seek the company of those with similar views. This human tendency to seek out and spend time with those most similar to us is known in social science as 'homophily'. It means that those with weird views are likely to be friends with those who share and therefore reinforce those views.
- People see patterns even where there are none. The technical term for this is pareidolia. A long time ago, man linked various stars in the night sky to make up constellations but there is no connection between these stars and it would have been possible to construct many different 'pictures'. Some people see a man's face on the surface of the moon or an image of Christ in a piece of toast but, in truth, this is just a personal construct that has no independent validity. Pattern-seeking is understandable because pattern recognition is the basis of all aesthetic enjoyment, whether it is music, poetry or science.
- People see causality even where there is none. This is called the narrative fallacy. Centuries ago, tribal peoples thought that their rain dances caused rain - but, of course, we now know better. Yet, even today, we can delude ourselves into thinking that if we treat a dice in a particular way - for instance, rubbing or kissing it - we can influence the number it will show. At the extreme, some people claim that there is no such thing as coincidence - everything in the universe is somehow interconnected by some sort of 'energy' or 'force'.
- People seek meaning even where there is none. Scientific and secular systems of thought have proved unsatisfying to many. They ask what is the meaning of life and the universe and are uncomfortable with the suggestion that there is none, so they invent a meaning which is usually religious and usually involves a supreme being who provides some sort of meaning even if they cannot understand it. What was the meaning of the Holocaust?
- People seek purpose even where there is none. In an uncertain and confusing world, so may people desperately look for some kind of purpose behind events. In the Middle Ages, people could not understand why the Black Death reduced the population of Europe by up to a half, but today we accept that there was no purpose behind this. Today some people wonder why literally millions are dying of AIDS and construct bizarre purposes such as God's retribution for moral laxity. At the extreme - although a surprising number of people think this way - one will hear people insist: "There's no such thing as coincidence. Everything happens for a reason". What these people see as more than coincidence is often simply probability. For instance, two people in a room of 30 find that they have the same birthday - is this synchronicity or probability? In fact, the odds of two people sharing a birthday is more than evens once one has a group larger than 23 [for an explanation click here].
- People seek wonder. We all want a little magic in our lives which might seem otherwise boring and mundane. The world would be a more wonderful place if there were really fairies and angels and some inexplicable interconnectness in the whole of humankind or the universe.
- People often seek simple answers to questions. Life is complicated and simple answers often seem more attractive and compelling even if they are not valid and lack evidence. As the British writer, broadcaster and medical doctor Ben Goldacre puts it: "I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that". He even sells a T-shirt bearing the slogan [click here].
- People sometimes invoke more complicated explanations than is necessary or justified. Just because we are not sure how the Egyptians built the pyramids does not mean that we have to invent a theory that they were constructed by visitors from outer space. The unexplained is not the same as the inexplicable.
- People seek instant gratification. Many people do not just want answers to be simple, but they want them to be quick. This is why 'miracle cures' and 'get rich quick' schemes can be so compelling to people even when rationally they understand that the likelihood of success must be highly doubtful.
- People seek reinforcement of existing beliefs. This is called the error of confirmation. Many people do not like to admit (even to themselves) that they were wrong about an earlier belief or that, although they were not wrong in the light of the information available at the time, the information has now changed and therefore rationally so should their view.
- People are prone to generalisations. People often rush to make judgements by taking one or two instances of something and generalising or projecting it to the overall situation. So one or two bad teachers can lead to an assumption that the entire school system is failing. The worst type of generalisation is to confuse anecdote with evidence - the belief that 'this was my experience and so it must be everyone else's'.
- People can fail to consider the available evidence. Often people will simply not weigh the evidence because it requires time or thought and it is simpler just to go with instinct or prejudice or a pre-existing political or religious or cultural mind set.
- People can be selective about the evidence they choose. As people tend to seek reinforcement of existing views, they tend to select the evidence that reinforces that view and reject the evidence that challenges or undermines the original view.
- People can miss the silence evidence. For example, three cancer patients pray for recovery and do indeed recover which appears to confirm the power of prayer. However, the silent evidence is those cases - probably much more numerous - where cancer sufferers prayed for recovery but then died.
- People can reconfigure their belief to 'fit' the evidence or lack of it. The classic case of this is belief in conspiracy theories. So, when London's Metropolitan Police conduct a thorough study of the circumstances of Princess Diana's death and find no evidence whatsover to support the claim that she was killed by the British secret service, for some conspiracy theorists this does not undermine their belief but in fact reinforces it by demonstrating just how extensive the 'cover up' has gone.
- People can reject the notion of evidence. Some people do not simply fail to consider the evidence at all or select the evidence which suits their view; they simply refuse to consider the validity of evidence as the basis for decision-making. One hears expressions like "I don't need any evidence, because my heart tells me what is true" or "Whatever the experts tell us, I know ..."
- People can reject the idea of tests. Some people are really averse to the idea of testing a belief or proposition. They will say things like "You can never believe these tests" or "I don't need to look at the tests because it works for me".
- People can fail to see the bigger picture. People can be so focused on some detail that they miss the wider picture completely. Don't believe me? Try the colour changing card trick click here.
- People can be misled by bold statements. L. Ron Hubbard opens his book "Dianetics: The Modern Science Of Mental Health" with the statement: "The creation of Dianetics is a milestone for man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to his invention of the wheel and the arch" - but this does not make scientologists' beliefs true [for more information click here]. Advocates of the 'the secret' or 'the law of attraction' believe that "Without exception, every human being has the ability to transform any weakness or suffering into strength, power, perfect peace, health, and abundance" - but this does make the so-called law true [for more information click here].
- People can be misled by 'scientific' statements. Just because scientific-like terminology is used to propagate a belief does not make that belief scientifically valid. Lots of alternative medications and health products are promoted with language which is frequently scientifically meaningless but designed to impress and/or confuse the consumer. Lots of paranormal ideas are put forward with references to 'quantum theory', which is very difficult even for a scientist to understand, or to 'energy', which is used in a generalised and ultimately meaningless manner.
- People can be misled by problems of perception. People are rarely more convinced of something than when they insist that they saw something with their own eyes. Yet every psychologist and every lawyer knows that the fact that one saw something is not of itself robust evidence. People are regularly seeing alien spaceships but there is usually a much more straightforward explanation for what the person saw. Some people see ghosts or spirits or angels but there is never clear photographic evidence of such sightings. It is not that people lie; they are simply misled. Even near-death out of body experiences can be explained by our knowledge of how the mind and the body work.
- People can be misled by trickery. Magicians do it for entertainment and conmen do it for exploitation. A very simple example is the floating cork trick [click here]. Other cases are more notorious or elaborate so, for example, Uri Geller cannnot bend spoons with his mind [for explanations click here] and aliens have not created crop circles [for explanations click here].
- People can be misled by an authority figure. At a societal level, parents can convince themselves that the MMR vaccination could cause autism in their child because one scientist suggested that this could be the case, even though his one study was deeply flawed and virtually every other study found no evidence for such causality. At a group level, soldiers can be led to believe that cruel treatment - even torture - of prisoners is acceptable because a superior has ordered them to behave in this way or simply created an ethos in which such treatment is regarded as 'normal'.
- People can be misled by an authority text. If one puts absolute faith in a particular text such as the Bible, taking as literal truth stories written at a very different time for a very different purpose, then one can easily be led to ignore or deny evidence and believe really weird things such as young earth creationism or a virgin birth or a resurrection from the dead.
- People can invoke a divine intervention. When something strange happens and we find it hard to explain - especially if it involves good fortune - some people are tempted to ascribe it to the intervention of their god or guardian angel or spirit protector or the result of prayer to such a being. For instance, an airliner crashes and everyone is killed except a little baby. The religious would often be inclined to assert that God was watching over that baby and spared her, but this does not explain why God did not intervene to spare the other 300 passengers. The religious would retort that mere humans cannot understand the mind of God and yet they insist that we are created in his image. If in his infinite wisdom and power he chooses not to make plain to us what specific actions - good behaviour, charitable donations, particular prayers - will invoke his intervention, then we have no logical basis for ascribing one event to him and not another. Every double blind scientific test of the efficacy of prayer has shown no relationship between prayer and outcomes; yet those who pray devoutly are much more inclined to remember the few times that their prayers have been 'answered' than the numerous times that they have not.
- People can fail to understand the science. Sometimes people think that paranormal behaviour is at work because they do not appreciate that something which seems to be impossible in normal circumstances is perfectly possible if one understands the relevant science. A great example is firewalking. Most people think that firewalking is impossible without some kind of special power. Some people claim to have this special power although the nature of it varies considerably from claimant to claimant. In fact, anyone can firewalk provided one moves at the correct pace and does not try to walk much beyond around 10 feet. Conversely even someone who claims to have some kind of special power will be unable to firewalk beyond say 15 feet. Don't believe me? Try this video click here.
- People can have selective memories. This is difficult for many people to accept, but the evidence is all around us from court cases, where different witnesses to the same event have different recollections, to conversations with family or friends about a shared experience, where memories can be very different even to the point of having a different recollection of the order of events. So a compulsive gambler who has a 'lucky' talisman is more likely to remember the times he wins than the times he loses and somone who believes in horoscopes or Tarot cards is more likely to remember the 'accurate' predictions than all the failed ones.
- People can have false memories. In one experiment, British subjects were asked to recall where they were when television footage of the first Bali terrorist bombing was broadcast. A significant proportion of the subjects recalled the broadcast even though there was never any footage of this bombing. It is well known that in therapy subjects can be induced to recall incidents of sexual abuse which never happened. We can create memories from all sorts of sources such as photographs or conversations.
- People may be given to suggestibility. It is well known that some people are more suggestible than others. Children obviously can be easily persuaded to believe in Father Christmas or the tooth fairy. But some adults are more suggestible than others which is why some people can be hypnotised more easily than others. Suggestions are not necessarily verbal, spoken, or read. A smile, a glare, a wink, a nod, a suit, a scientist's white coat, can all be suggestive devices. It should be noted that suggestibility is not the same as gullibility.
- People can suffer from group think. In certain circumstances - which are in fact more common than we care to admit - members of a group can be encouraged or induced to think alike to the point of abandoning independent judgement. There was probably a large element of group think in the highest levels of the US and UK governments when it was decided that Saddam Hussein's Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. There was probably a similar process of group think at work in the global finance sector in the mid 2000s when so many clever financiers convinced themselves that their lending policies were sound and the markets were working well. It can be difficult to be that little boy who points out that the emperor has no clothes.
- People believe things because such beliefs have been around for a long time. Longevity does not equal validity. You will hear people assert that most civilisations have believed in an after life so there must be something in the belief but, for millennia, everyone believed that the earth was flat and this is not true. You will hear people assert that various alternative remedies have been used for centuries so they must work. Blood letting was used for centuries but it did no good and often did harm.
- People like to feel special or empowered. The idea that one might have a special power - to read minds, to see the future, to send messages mentally, to locate water, to see God or angels or ghosts - is exciting and can give one real status in one's own eyes and those of others. It is perhaps not too surprising that people who claim to have such powers are reluctant to concede that they do not exist or have a more rational explanation.
- People can have weird experiences. We have all had the experience of words or pictures or tunes coming into our head and at first we cannot work out why this should have happened and then we recall that we read a particular article or saw a particular film or heard some particular music. We have all had the kind of experience often described as 'déjà vu' but there are various possible scientific explanations which do not require us to resort to paranormal theories. Even 'out of body' experiences can be explained medically and even induced in people. So weird things do happen to us - but they do not have to have weird explanations.
- People believe things because it 'works' for them. Typically people will argue that they do not care what the scientists or doctors say, a particular alternative or complementary or homeopathic medicine works for them. It probably does work - but how? They do not know and do not care. In truth, the treatment probably works no better than a placebo and in just the same manner as a placebo. We can only be sure if we carry out double blind tests with the treatment and a placebo but creators, providers and users of such treatments or products are not interested in such experimentation because it might not confirm their belief.
- People may want to believe so much. In the end, people believe what they want to believe even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary because that belief gives them comfort. So people may see no evidence for a god or an after life but find the idea that there might be one really comforting; people may be doubtful about how a homeopathic medicine is supposed to work but find that taking it makes them feel better; people may choose to ignore the compelling evidence that human activity has contributed substantially to global warming because that enables them to pursue a particular life style with less guilt or concern. Even in the face of specific evidence relating to their specific circumstances, people will often choose not to acknowledge that their belief is misplaced - to see an example of how those who claim dowsing powers cannot accept evidence click here.
Of course, life is not always as simple as this and the testing of beliefs is not always as straightforward as this, but this line of thinking should be our guide in assessing the validity or truthfulness of a belief. Above all, we should be sceptical and practice critical thinking [for advice on how to do this click here].
- A theory requires real evidence. Real evidence is not simple belief or anecdote, but objective facts preferably based on scientific study. In this case, the evidence would be repeated observations that the sun did in fact rise each morning whatever one did or did not do.
- All the evidence should be consistent with the theory. Just one case of the sun not rising in the morning - on the assumption that this was not simply an observational error - would lead one to question fundamentally the theory.
- The theory should make clear and precise predictions. If the theory can tell us not just that the sun will rise each morning, but exactly when it will rise in different locations around the globe and at different times of the calendar year, this is much more impressive than generalised predictions which are difficult to test or interpret.
- These predictions should come true. If the sun does indeed rise at exactly the time predicted by the theory in all sorts of different places and at all sorts of different times, this is extremely convincing evidence in support of the theory that no other professed explanation is likely to emulate.
- The theory should be capable of being falsified. If the sun rises at the 'wrong' time as predicted by the theory, then the theory has been falsified.
"The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark" by Carl Sagan (Random House, 1995) [for review click here]
- "Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, And Other Confusions Of Our Time" by Michael Shermer (W.H. Freeman, 1997) [for review click here]
- "Don't Get Fooled Again: The Skeptic's Guide To Life" by Richard Wilson (Icon Books, 2008) [for review click here]
- "Bad Science" by Ben Goldacre (Fourth Estate, 2008) [for review click here]
Last modified on 28 June 2009
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