Corpus Callosum points us to a review in science entitled Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science (Chris at mixing memory also has coverage of the article). This is a perfect study to emphasize a critical aspect of denialism and crankery, that is, the central role the overvalued idea plays in the evolution of a crank.
Denialism, in a nutshell, is the rhetorical strategy used to protect an overvalued idea from things like facts and data. The denialist or crank is trying desperately to hold on to a concept that is important to their self-identity or ego, and is in conflict with well-established scientific observations. Examples of overvalued ideas and the denialists that hold them include racial superiority for holocaust denialists, biblical literalism for young earth creationists, or having a scientific basis for deities in the case of intelligent design creationists. Sometimes the central truth being protected is more ephemeral or based on egotism or guilt or fear. Global warming denialists I believe are mostly fearful of economic consequences or lifestyle changes that may be forced by broad acknowledgment of the threat of some aspects of climate change (those who aren’t being paid to shill that is). People who insist autism is caused by mercury/vaccines are emotionally invested in finding someone to blame for their children’s illness or are harboring a fundamental distrust of medicine (often complaining of some terrible experience with doctors).
But how do people latch onto these overvalued ideas in the first place? Why do people develop these and refuse to relinquish them? This paper provides insights into some sources of anti-scientific ideas, but sadly isn’t comprehensive. The ones it does cover though (I’d say creationism and Deepak-Chopra kinds of woo) are absolutely hysterical to read about.
For instance, I couldn’t help laughing as I read this paragraph:
The examples so far concern people’s common-sense understanding of the physical world, but their intuitive psychology also contributes to their resistance to science. One important bias is that children naturally see the world in terms of design and purpose. For instance, 4-year-olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions (“to go in the zoo”) and clouds (“for raining”), a propensity called “promiscuous teleology” (15). Additionally, when asked about the origin of animals and people, children spontaneously tend to provide and prefer creationist explanations (16). Just as children’s intuitions about the physical world make it difficult for them to accept that Earth is a sphere, their psychological intuitions about agency and design make it difficult for them to accept the processes of evolution.
Then they go on to describe why Deepak Chopra still hasn’t escaped childish thinking.
Another consequence of people’s common-sense psychology is dualism, the belief that the mind is fundamentally different from the brain (5). This belief comes naturally to children. Preschool children will claim that the brain is responsible for some aspects of mental life, typically those involving deliberative mental work, such as solving math problems. But preschoolers will also claim that the brain is not involved in a host of other activities, such as pretending to be a kangaroo, loving one’s brother, or brushing one’s teeth (5, 17). Similarly, when told about a brain transplant from a boy to a pig, they believed that you would get a very smart pig, but one with pig beliefs and pig desires (18). For young children, then, much of mental life is not linked to the brain.
The strong intuitive pull of dualism makes it difficult for people to accept what Francis Crick called “the astonishing hypothesis” (19): Dualism is mistaken–mental life emerges from physical processes. People resist the astonishing hypothesis in ways that can have considerable social implications. For one thing, debates about the moral status of embryos, fetuses, stem cells, and nonhuman animals are sometimes framed in terms of whether or not these entities possess immaterial souls (20, 21). What’s more, certain proposals about the role of evidence from functional magnetic resonance imaging in criminal trials assume a strong form of dualism (22). It has been argued, for instance, that if one could show that a person’s brain is involved in an act, then the person himself or herself is not responsible, an excuse dubbed “my brain made me do it” (23). These assumptions about moral status and personal responsibility reflect a profound resistance to findings from psychology and neuroscience.
These are actually very nice explanations for why people won’t let go of intuitive ideas when presented with scientific information that’s contrary. Not only are ideas like creationism tied to things like self-image and authorities people respect, but they fit with hard-wired intuitions about the world that are difficult to escape. The problem is, the way our brains intuit things isn’t necessarily correct – the authors provide many examples – and a major aspect of science is correcting our built-in intuitions with experience, data, and observations about the natural world.
So overall, this is a very nice paper but it only really scratches the surface of how people develop overvalued ideas. I don’t think, for instance, that things like HIV/AIDS denialism, or global warming denialism can be explained with this model of behavior. Cranks that will not accept the proof that HIV causes AIDS have a variety of different types of overvalued ideas that have little to do with intuition (which I think would favor a viral hypothesis in this instance). Some of these cranks have some kind of major defect in their ability to acknowledge error. Peter Duesberg, in particular, seems to have developed his overvalued idea that the proof for HIV causing AIDS was too correlative when he first wrote this paper in 1987. At the time there was already powerful evidence that HIV was not like the other retroviruses he was comparing it to and was clearly the causative agent of AIDS. Instead he blamed things like diet and recreational drug use, so another overvalued idea involved here is a desire to blame the victim for their suffering. As evidence continued to pile up his idea was given serious consideration and ultimately rejected, but he could not let it go. He had emotionally invested himself in this idea and was going to be right no matter what. The people who continue to back him appear to suffer from the same flaw (with an undercurrent of homophobia/desire to blame the victim). However HIV/AIDS denialism also includes people like Christine Maggiore who are HIV positive and simply don’t want to believe they have a fatal and often stigmatic illness.
With global warming denialism you often see intuitive arguments used – usually conflating weather with climate – but the origin of the overvalued ideas seems to mostly be resistance to change for economic or other reasons. The same goes for anti-vaccination denialism, holocaust denial, and denialism about animal experimentation. These overvalued ideas emerge from a variety of sources that are very different from each other and represent very different human motivations spanning the range from fear to bigotry to an excess of compassion. Hell, some cranks just like being “iconoclasts” or “contrarians” (beware people who use those terms to describe themselves – it’s almost always a sign of a crank) because they think believing in contrarian opinions makes them seem special or smart. *cough* Fumento *cough*.
So I’d conclude that this is certainly an interesting read in terms of understanding the origins of some unscientific ideas, but by it is by no means comprehensive. Many of these ideas are coming not just from misunderstandings of the physical world, but also from deeply personal motivations. It’s not just a matter of making errors of intuition, it’s even more critically a failure of personal insight into how one’s beliefs are formed.