Pharyngula

Why people believe in bad ideas

There is a must-read article at Edge by Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg—it’s an attempt to explain why people resist scientific knowledge that takes a psychological view of the phenomenon. The premise is that our brains have in-built simplifications and assumptions about how the world works that often conflict with how it really works—there is, for instance, an intuitive physics and a real physics that are not entirely in agreement, and that we bring our understanding into alignment with reality through education and experience. The naive assumptions of the young brain contribute to ideas like dualism and creationism. For example:

Our intuitive psychology also contributes to resistance to science. One significant bias is that children naturally see the world in terms of design and purpose. For instance, four year-olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions (“to go in the zoo”) and clouds (“for raining”), a propensity that Deborah Kelemen has dubbed “promiscuous teleology.” Additionally, when asked about the origin of animals and people, children spontaneously tend to provide and to prefer creationist explanations.

“Promiscuous teleology” is a phrase I’m going to have to use more.

There’s also a section on how children learn that makes the point that there are different kinds of understanding prevalent in any culture: There is “common knowledge” that is transmitted with little careful scrutiny, but there is also a large body of knowledge that the ordinary fellow won’t be able to critically evaluate, but is accepted because of trust in an authority—and science tends to fall into that category.

Here’s part of their conclusion:

In sum, the developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are taken as reliable and trustworthy. This is the current situation in the United States with regard to the central tenets of neuroscience and of evolutionary biology. These clash with intuitive beliefs about the immaterial nature of the soul and the purposeful design of humans and other animals — and, in the United States, these intuitive beliefs are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities. Hence these are among the domains where Americans’ resistance to science is the strongest.

We should stress that this failure to defer to scientists in these domains does not necessarily reflect stupidity, ignorance, or malice. In fact, some skepticism toward scientific authority is clearly rational. Scientists have personal biases due to ego or ambition–no reasonable person should ever believe all the claims made in a grant proposal. There are also political and moral biases, particularly in social science research dealing with contentious issues such as the long-term effects of being raised by gay parents or the explanation for gender differences in SAT scores. It would be naïve to ignore all this, and someone who accepted all “scientific” information would be a patsy. The problem is exaggerated when scientists or scientific organizations try to use their authority to make proclamations about controversial social issues. People who disagree with what scientists have to say about these issues might reasonably infer that it is not safe to defer to them more generally.

It really gets down to trust in the experts who should know more about a subject than the average citizen. America has an unpleasant history of anti-intellectualism, and generally scientists are less trusted than politicians and the clergy — and the clergy will gladly feed intuitive but false understandings about how science works. So how will we get away from this problem?

But this rejection of science would be mistaken in the end. The community of scientists has a legitimate claim to trustworthiness that other social institutions, such as religions and political movements, lack. The structure of scientific inquiry involves procedures, such as experiments and open debate, that are strikingly successful at revealing truths about the world. All other things being equal, a rational person is wise to defer to a geologist about the age of the earth rather than to a priest or to a politician.

Given the role of trust in social learning, it is particularly worrying that national surveys reflect a general decline in the extent to which people trust scientists. To end on a practical note, then, one way to combat resistance to science is to persuade children and adults that the institute of science is, for the most part, worthy of trust.

That’s a positive answer, and I think we can accomplish that by getting scientists out and about, engaging the public more. Most people don’t even meet real scientists until they go off to college, and it’s easy to mistrust strange people who work off in mysterious labs; not so easy to mistrust somebody you sit down and have coffee and conversation with. Openness is the first key building block of trust.

Another tactic not mentioned, though, is that I think we also need to work to undermine the trust in the clergy. They are not qualified authorities, and in most cases they are anti-authorities who encourage belief in falsehoods. In this case, people like Ken Ham and various money-grubbing televangelists are our best friends; they are one of the levers we use to expose the rotten core of religion and the falsity of religious indoctrination, and help us to remove one corrupting influence on children’s minds.

Comments

  1. #1 Rienk
    May 30, 2007

    Yeah, I read their article in Science, but besides the causes Bloom and Skolnick Weisberg list I would like to add the following: misunderstanding, misleading propaganda, and wishful thinking (the latter especially in the case of evolution — we need to have a higher purpose, or else…). Resistance to science is a challenging problem for scientists, science advocates, educators and policy makers alike. Nonacceptance of certain scientific principles is not as much solved by increasing science literacy but by increasing science credibility.

  2. #2 Umilik
    May 30, 2007

    Sorry, totally off the topic but interesting nevertheless. Those peaceful vikings apparently have done it again.

    http://www.visionofhumanity.com/rankings/

  3. #3 Caledonian
    May 30, 2007

    We also need to do a better job of understanding why people join social systems of thought like religions.

    Telling people that their religion is wrong and should be abandoned is rather like telling people at a sports match that their teams’ colors don’t flatter them and they should wear something else, or that striping half-naked and painting their bodies is unwise in winter and they should put something warm on. The recommendations don’t touch people’s motivations for the actions, and so their actions don’t change.

    I suspect most people – even the supposedly pro-science ones – are unwilling to explore this, as it would reflect badly on their own identifications and affiliations. Witness the types of discussion that occur here when politics are discussed, for example. True believers, irrational thought, and tribal factionalism abound.

  4. #4 Ken
    May 30, 2007

    The problem is that these religious leaders make things easier for people by helping them simplify the things they have to think about in a given day. That is what religious fundamentalism is all about. I don’t have to think about that because my religious leader says so and now I can focus on something else. The trick, I think, is to stimulate a person’s innate curiousity. My science teachers did that throughout my schooling. Of course I was lucky because it was not only my science teachers but also my history teachers, literature teachers, etc.

  5. #5 roger
    May 30, 2007

    so we, the lumpen mass of us, more readily believe religious leaders and politicians then we do scientists. the religion thing is at least about non-provable (or non-disprovable) stuff, but the politicians are caught lying and being wrong quite often and we still fall for it.

  6. #6 forsen
    May 30, 2007

    Paul Bloom is probably my favourite atheist writer all cathegories. If you haven’t read it already, his essay “Is god an accident?” (over at http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200512/god-accident ) is a real eye-opener.

  7. #7 notthedroids
    May 30, 2007

    It’s always a good sign to be lumped with Turkey and Cyprus.

  8. #8 tristero
    May 30, 2007

    I’m not impressed. Their paper oversimplifies to an unhelpful extent.

    If they were right, how come all us commenters on this blog are immune and have no problem with evolution? Shouldn’t we be just as resistant to the “counter-intuitive” idea of natural selection as the next person? (And by the way, who sez natural selection is counter-intuitive? It sounds like common sense to me.)

    Ditto the issue of the authority of scientists. Yes, scientists are distrusted, but they are also very much trusted, because after all all, it is scientific reasoning that lies behind all the technology we use. We don’t take our car with transmission problems to a priest or a senator; we take it to a mechanic who has been trained to understand enough science to figure out (we trust) how to diagnose and fix it.

    Sure, the reason why evolution is so unaccepted in the US has something to do with the fact that childhood reasoning strategies are contradicted by science. But the intensity of the disagreement?

    That has nothing to do with a child’s promiscuous theology but everyhing to do with an adult christianist’s promiscuous lust for power.

    That’s not to say scientists shouldn’t be trusted more, and also get out among us Great Unwashed and tell us more about what they’re doing. Of course they should. But this is a political and cultural war, not an educational or developmental hurdle.

  9. #10 Drad Frantle
    May 30, 2007

    Another problem is that reporting of science in the press is, by the nature of journalism, oversimplified and contradictory. It’s oversimplified because statistical significance and error bars don’t make good copy, so a correlation between effects is simplified into the ‘tomatos cause cancer’ type headline. Another study, with a different focus, will be reported as ‘tomatos are good for your heart’, and an impression that science is uncertain and self-contradicting is given. Journalists who know something about science are rarer than humanities-trained ones, it seems. More like Ben Goldacre are needed.

  10. #11 Pierce R. Butler
    May 30, 2007

    PZ MYers: Most people don’t even meet real scientists…

    Sure they do: Those kindly-voiced people in the lab coats on tv promoting the latest diet, cancer scare, or pharmaceutical breakthrough are scientists, aren’t they? Not to mention those guys whose experiments get out of hand every week and require lots of shooting and explosions to save the world, or at least the blonde, from.

    What’s not to trust?

  11. #12 Sonja
    May 30, 2007

    It has been my personal observation that people who tend to accept the mainstream ideologies in their society lack a healthy sense of the absurd.

    The ability to see the absurdities in human society is the key to curiosity, openness, and humor.

    (I’ll take my grant $$ now…)

  12. #13 notthedroids
    May 30, 2007

    A “wrong” belief can still confer evolutionary advantage.

    That’s the hurdle that a guy like Dawkins can’t seem to get over.

  13. #14 RickD
    May 30, 2007

    CharmingMan: TinyUrl is your friend!

  14. #15 CalGeorge
    May 30, 2007

    People trust politicians?

    Gak! Why?

    Is it because they press the flesh, smile a lot, and make promises?

    Hmmm, maybe scientists could learn something from the pols.

    The easy part is the promising. What does science promise?

    To understand the universe!

    What could be better than that!

  15. #16 CalGeorge
    May 30, 2007

    Why Fred Thompson, the actor and former Senator who is close to announcing a run for President, believes in bad ideas: he’s a science-smearing ideologue. Do not let this guy become President!

    Plutonic Warming

    By Fred Thompson

    Some people think that our planet is suffering from a fever. Now scientists are telling us that Mars is experiencing its own planetary warming: Martian warming. It seems scientists have noticed recently that quite a few planets in our solar system seem to be heating up a bit, including Pluto.

    NASA says the Martian South Pole’s “ice cap” has been shrinking for three summers in a row. Maybe Mars got its fever from earth. If so, I guess Jupiter’s caught the same cold, because it’s warming up too, like Pluto.

    This has led some people, not necessarily scientists, to wonder if Mars and Jupiter, non signatories to the Kyoto Treaty, are actually inhabited by alien SUV-driving industrialists who run their air-conditioning at 60 degrees and refuse to recycle.

    Silly, I know, but I wonder what all those planets, dwarf planets and moons in our SOLAR system have in common. Hmmmm. SOLAR system. Hmmmm. Solar? I wonder. Nah, I guess we shouldn’t even be talking about this. The science is absolutely decided. There’s a consensus.

    Ask Galileo.

    — Fred Thompson is an actor and former United States senator from Tennessee.

    http://article.nationalreview.com/print/?q=NTQzYWY1MGM5NTkyZTM2YWVlMDMzMDlhMzQwNThhNDU=

  16. #17 Robert
    May 30, 2007

    “A “wrong” belief can still confer evolutionary advantage.

    That’s the hurdle that a guy like Dawkins can’t seem to get over”

    This is a statement from someone who has obviously not read TGD.

  17. #18 John Danley
    May 30, 2007

    I agree with Ken’s posting. Religion is efficient for a capitalist culture that demands fast answers to more complex propositions. Like medical billing, insurance companies want “quick solutions” and not what is necessarily best for the patient. Everything has become co-opted. Co-opted for Christ.

  18. #19 George
    May 30, 2007

    Is our thinking brain part of evolution? The question should be: How come human are capable of reasoning and understanding complex ideas? If a (relatively) few can, what prevents the multitude from doing so too?

  19. #20 Mosasaurus rex
    May 30, 2007

    Politicians and preachers provide simple answers to complex problems; therin lies their power and appeal. Never mind that the simple answers aren’t accurate- they are easy to understand, and a lot of people are drawn to whatever is easy. For many, comfort is king.

  20. #21 Nan
    May 30, 2007

    The reason priests and politicians can seemingly convince people to believe them is they’re telling folks the lies they want to hear — your life may suck now but you’ll be rewarded in heaven, there is such a thing as a free lunch, and when bad things happen it’s always someone else’s fault. Scientists, on the other hand, have an unfortunate habit of dealing in fact, not fiction. Still, I don’t think the promiscuous teleology displayed by pre-schoolers would be an issue in the long run if the U.S. educational system overall didn’t do such a great job of stifling curiousity.

  21. #22 Cheryl Ann
    May 30, 2007

    I came across a really fun paper a couple years that relates to this post. It is by E. Marget Evans in Cognitive Psychology 42, 217-266 and is titled Cognitive and Contextual Factors in the Emergence of Diverse belief systems: Creation versus Evolution. The punch-line of the article is that children generate intuitive beliefs about origins (of life), both natural and intentional, while communities privilege certain beliefs and inhibit others, thus engendering diverse belief systems”.
    She found that 5-7 year olds in fundamentalist schools endorsed creationism, whereas nonfundamentalists endorsed mixed creationist and spontaneous generationist beliefs. 8-10 year olds were exclusively creationist regardless of their communities. Preadolescents embraced the dominant beliefs of their community, whether it is creationist or evolutionist.
    This study demonstrates how important scientific knowledge is to the development scientific thought and acceptances. It also showed how religious communties effect the emergence of children’s beliefs about the origin of life. It is also interesting to note that if children are not exposed (or exposed negatively)to the evolutionist model of the origin of life they will continue to have creationist models that seem so intuitive to them.

  22. #23 Jon
    May 30, 2007

    @tristero

    “It sounds like common sense to me.”

    That’s because you, and the rest of us, actually know what evolution is. Most people won’t even go that far. And so they default to whatever other explanation they can find, preferably one that’s comfortable.

  23. #24 gerald spezio
    May 30, 2007

    CalGeorge, Fred Thompson, of course, is a lawyer and a judge.

    Question; What is the only thing worse than a lawyer?
    Answer; A lawyer who becomes a judge.

    Fred knows how to frame and then some.

  24. #25 Jon
    May 30, 2007

    Pay no attention to the Fred Thompson spam bot.

  25. #26 Greg Peterson
    May 30, 2007

    If you have any interest in seeing how a relatively powerful fundamentalis puke approaches this material, see Albert Mohler’s response: http://www.albertmohler.com/blog_print.php?id=951

  26. #27 tinisoli
    May 30, 2007

    I like the point about the need for education not only to penetrate religious numbskulls but to get people who “believe” in natural selection to actually know how it works. I have a Christian friend who laughs out loud at the idea of us “evolving from apes,” and I have a mother who “believes” in evolution but hasn’t the slightest idea how it operates. (She thinks any reasonable explanation for why something might have evolved is good enough. For example, women get PMS in order to prevent men from mating with them at the wrong time. Makes sense to her, so it’s her “theory.”) They’re both ignorant, and I think both forms of ignorance–his outright, stubborn denial and her D+ grasp of evolution–may be equally problematic when it comes to navigating the world and making choices.

  27. #28 Christian Burnham
    May 30, 2007

    Why people believe in bad ideas?

    Uh… ’cause they’re stoopid? That’s one explanation.

  28. #29 Brownian
    May 30, 2007

    #23. I dunno Jon. Many religious claims completely beat out natural selection for absurdity. They’re comfortable not because they’re common sense, but because they’re taught at such a young age.

  29. #30 daedalus2u
    May 30, 2007

    This reminds me of my freshman year at MIT. The most common expression by far was “that concept is counterintuitive” (an expression I never used, not a single time). As I have become older and wiser, I now understand why so many MIT freshman are compelled to use that expression.

    MIT freshmen are people that have (for the most part) been #1 or #2 in their class since kindergarten. They have been accustomed to being perceived as “the smartest” person in the class, and in “knowing more” than their peers. Freshman year at MIT that all changes, with fully half of the students now being below average (gasp, the horror!). Getting used to this new world order takes some time, and not a small amount of rationalization. MIT freshmen are not immune to promiscuous teleology, at least not yet. In order to understand why they did not understand a concept intuitively, the answer is (of course) that the concept itself can only be “counterintuitive”.

    How can anyone be expected to intuitively understand a concept that is “counterintuitive”? Well, what is “intuition”? I have always thought of it as a way of understanding something I didn’t “know”. That is something that had not been proven to my satisfaction using facts and logic. When ever my intuition was shown to be wrong (via facts and logic), I would change change my intuition.

    I think it is the lack of this ongoing modification of one’s intuition in the face of new facts and logic that leads to the belief in bad ideas. When one’s intuition can’t predict when an idea is bad, the intuition is useless (actually worse than useless, it is harmful).

    This is the fundamental characteristic of the fundamentalists. Their intuition that “godidit”, is not subject to modification in the face of facts and logic.

  30. #31 RamblinDude
    May 30, 2007

    “This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are taken as reliable and trustworthy. This is the current situation in the United States with regard to the central tenets of neuroscience and of evolutionary biology.”

    That is absolutely correct. The reason that the fundies insist on believing senseless things is that the so called ‘creationist scientists’ keep lying to them.

    I have talked to many people who are very suspicious of real scientists, because those ‘evolution believers’ won’t accept the ‘truth’ that: carbon dating has been invalidated and proven unreliable; that there are perfectly reasonable explanations that prove that Noah’s ark could have happened and water could have flooded the whole world above the highest mountain; that creationists have actually done the hard work necessary to prove that the world is only 6000 years old but those godless scientists won’t admit it because their real agenda is to disprove the bible; etc, etc.

    As long as people are being fed misinformation–from people that they have been convinced are knowledgeable experts–their brains can’t function properly. (And if you throw weeping-over-sweet-Jesus into the mix, you can forget about converting them to rational, critical thinking anytime soon.)

    The willingness to lie is the bane of humanity.

  31. #32 Arnosium Upinarum
    May 30, 2007

    notthedroids said:

    “A “wrong” belief can still confer evolutionary advantage. That’s the hurdle that a guy like Dawkins can’t seem to get over.”

    What hurdle? So some wrong beliefs can confer an advantage. So what? We see it all the time, all around us.

    Dawkins never says that a wrong belief can’t or shouldn’t confer an advantage (however temporary). It’s the allegiance to any belief that cultivates and compounds further wrong-thinking that he has a problem with. He knows full well how pernicious and infectious a wrong belief can be, however personally advantageous they may be. Such beliefs threaten critical and rational thinking in huge numbers of people, just when we need it most, and I must say I agree with him.

  32. #33 Wedge
    May 30, 2007

    One simple thing (simple in theory, at least) would be to emphasize teaching mathematics at all levels. A good understanding of quantity and mathematical rigor are the foundation of any scientific understanding and many people stop at arithmetic, if that.

    I’m not pushing my own field – I’m a linguist.

    I have no idea how to accomplish this education, but then I don’t know how to tackle religion, misinformation, and anti-intellectualism either. It might be easier to begin with something as non-controversial as math.

  33. #34 JoeBlu
    May 30, 2007

    You are gonna get quote mined so hard:

    “Ken Ham and … evangelists are our best friends,” said PZ Myers

  34. #35 saurabh
    May 30, 2007

    This sounds like a lot of hooey, to me. An intuitive psychology? An intuitive belief in an immaterial soul? I don’t believe it. Four-year-olds are INCREDIBLY socialized. I don’t accept them as reliable arbiters of what is “intuitive” psychology. I also have met too many kids whose primary vocabulary word is “why?” to believe that teleological explanations are kids’ preference. Stuff and nonsense. Next explanation, please.

  35. #36 Bunjo
    May 30, 2007

    Although you and I would agree that scientists are great people, none better, etc etc, the public memory tends to be of people who speak from authority – but keep changing their minds. Advice of how to treat burns that has changed markedly over the years, arguments over the safety of vaccines, what constitutes a balanced diet, arguments about fossils, the risks associated with smoking, global cooling/global warming, oil crash in the 1980s, and so on. Now some of this is down to poor reporting, but all that means that scientists need to communuicate better…

    Another factor is that, from experience, successful people (business men, film stars, presidents (even dumb ones)) don’t need a sound world view to achieve their pre-eminence. Indeed sometimes their simplistic view of life gives them the drive to push ahead. It is no coincidence that some religions and cults actively recruit film stars as members to make their beliefs more attractive to the ordinary person.

    So if we just set up our own media conglomerate to improve science reporting, and set up our own science cult (and attract well known film stars) we can set a good example of science…

    Dream on.

  36. #37 stogoe
    May 30, 2007

    I have to echo #17(Robert) and #32(Arnosium); notthedroids doesn’t seem to have read TGD (I’m reading it currently, so I should know).

    It’s probably just a knee-jerk Dawkins-thwack so common among those who agree with Brayton and Chris from Muddling Memory.

  37. #38 BC
    May 30, 2007

    It might be all fine and nice to attribute creationism to early childhood, but we all know the stories of people who believed in evolution, then converted to some form of conservative Christianity, and then decided (or were talked into the idea) that they needed to believe in six-day creation six-thousand years ago, and then went about defending six-day creationism. That said, on many occasions I’ve pointed out to creationists and IDists the fact that their understanding of science is based on their own erroneous intuition – and shown them that their intuition is wrong.

  38. #39 clucas
    May 30, 2007

    smart people can steal your car

  39. #40 Jon Eccles
    May 30, 2007

    From the article, quoting the President’s Council in their 2003 report (Being Human: Readings from the President’s Council on Bioethics):

    “We have both corporeal and noncorporeal aspects. We are embodied spirits and inspirited bodies (or, if you will, embodied minds and minded bodies)”.

    In 1277, Pope John XXI issued a condemnation of 219 propositions argued by philosophers of the Paris school, and explained in some detail the exact propositions that philosophers were to find to be true. 826 years later, an immeasurably less literate and sophisticated President finds himself wandering into territory he couldn’t begin to understand either.

  40. #41 Randy Owens
    May 30, 2007

    saurabh:

    I also have met too many kids whose primary vocabulary word is “why?” to believe that teleological explanations are kids’ preference.

    Huh? Isn’t teleology the whole business of asking “why?”, at heart? How could that possibly be considered contradictory? I’d consider it supporting evidence.

  41. #42 llewelly
    May 30, 2007

    They prefer to learn from a knowledgeable speaker than from an ignorant one, and they prefer a confident source to a tentative one.

    Ironically, ignorance aids confidence, because the ignorant are seldom aware of the issues that lead to uncertainty, and of how little they know. Knowledge, on the other hand, encourages tentative statements, because it makes one aware of sources of uncertainty, and of how little one knows.

  42. #43 Rob Jase
    May 30, 2007

    “We should stress that this failure to defer to scientists in these domains does not necessarily reflect stupidity, ignorance, or malice.”

    I think they left all those evangelical leaders like the late Jerry Falwell out of the study.

  43. #44 Loren Petrich
    May 31, 2007

    Strictly speaking, evolution is descent with modification, and not natural selection. So evolution can happen by non-Darwinian mechanisms — including teleological mechanisms. And in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many biologists had proposed various non-Darwinian mechanisms, like Lamarckism and orthogenesis (evolution driven by internal forces). Lamarck himself considered Lamarckism only minor; his major mechanism was a form of orthogenesis.

    Natural selection has the great merit of being a non-teleological mechanism that can produce the appearance of teleology. Also, genetic drift and neutral selection can produce a statistical sort of orthogenesis, the “molecular clock”.

    And PZ, I wonder if you have ever thought of blogging on vitalism. You might wish to discuss one of the last big-name biologists to advocate vitalism: Hans Driesch. Although in retrospect, Driesch’s argument was a vital-force-of-the-gaps argument.

  44. #45 pkiwi
    May 31, 2007

    I am not sure how the following observations fit the paper (and its damn late down here in the Antipodes), but….
    Four years ago, when our kids were 6,5 & 2 we had another baby that did not live long. Our kids did (and for some time after, and perhaps to come) did ask why – expecting to get (and getting) answers that related to the physiological and statistical aspects. They never have asked questions that may have ascribed ‘purpose’, but then we never have lead them into magical-thinking that there was immmaterial souls etc. I remarked at the (secular!) memorial service, that it was incredibly refreshing for me to have their friends asking me straightforwardly and candidly “has your baby died?”. (BTW I think my kids have managed grief incredibly well, and have found beautiful means to express their feelings, such as through poetry).

    I have seen other recent examples of this as well, where children deal with facts of death incredibly well. But I have also seen kids look confused when elderly relatives start muttering in low voices about ‘better places’, and heaven and suchlike. My prejudice perhaps, but this stuff really seems to stuff up the grieving process – like the kids has to think ‘like what the – am I supposed to be happy or sad?’. I have incredible respect for the lucidity of children and their sense-making ability – but parents and religion can really confuse them. Parenting, as in most endeavours, should start with the dictum, first, do no harm.

  45. #46 WCG
    May 31, 2007

    > Why people believe in bad ideas?
    >
    > Uh… ’cause they’re stoopid?

    It’s easy to think this, but we all know smart people who believe in stupid things. Thomas Gilovich wrote a great little book called “How We Know What Isn’t So” (1991) that makes this point very well. The book isn’t about “what” we know that’s not true, though he does give some examples at the end, but “how” or “why” we believe it.

    He says that cognitive illusions aren’t evidence of poor intelligence, any more than optical illusions are evidence of poor eyesight. There are reasons why people believe in pseudoscience and other fantasy, and much of it has to do with the nature of our brains and our normal cognitive processes.

    It’s fascinating stuff and fits in very well with this excellent article by Bloom and Weisberg.

  46. #47 Christian Burnham
    May 31, 2007

    WCG: Yeah, I agree. There are a lot of smart people who believe stupid things, but to be fair- there are an even greater number of stupid people who believe stupid things.

    I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault if they’re born stoopid, so I’m not putting the blame on these people. It’s true that education does a lot to improve us all.

  47. #48 Keith Douglas
    June 1, 2007

    There’s some material on this subject I found quite fascinating in a volume called The Cognitive Basis of Science. A link to it is on my books page on my website.

    tristero: I used to think that scientific modes of thinking were common sense. But they aren’t; that’s precisely the point. They may be more easily grasped by some people than others, though. (That is, of course, a hypothesis sketch.)

    Drad Frantle: A journalism student was a fellow student in a “Ethics for Robots” course I took when I was in grad school. I asked her about science and technology journalism, and she thought its poor state was in part due to the profit motive – the newspapers (never mind TV) will lose readers if they give statistics properly, etc. It looks like a horrible bootstrapping problem.

    CalGeorge: A lot of people will value security, a sense of community, or even a sack of potatoes (because they are starving) over that. Our problems are systemic. People have mentioned the scientific study of religion – well, it seems that Marx was partially right, religion is a way of coping with misery, after a fashion, and having community when the socioeconomic system’s injustices have ripped people from one another, etc.

    George: See the remark of mine above about TCBoS. In it is a piece on the cognitive resources of hunter-gatherers vs. scientists. Gist: both are equally demanding, but of non-overlapping sorts. Some of the very best hunters and gatherers could be good lab scientists, if they had been trained.

    saurabh: Some of this stuff has been cross-culturally replicated, for what that’s worth.

  48. #49 David Harmon
    June 3, 2007

    Loren Petrich @#44: “Natural selection has the great merit of being a non-teleological mechanism that can produce the appearance of teleology. ”

    Actually, I’d say that natural selection can produce genuine teleology! A given mutation may not start with a purpose, but if it comes under heavy selection, it can acquire one or more “uses”, which then become a substrate for further developments — and a commitment to some particular evolutionary strategy.

    Thus, for example, some branches of early ungulates were selected for longer legs, on the basis that they could more easily escape predators. Over time, their descendants became committed to the strategy — and from that point, “running better” in general became a basic evolutionary goal for such creatures as horses, gazelles, etc. Thus they also developed (inter alia) pulmonary and circulatory adaptations, oriented toward this same, new, purpose. After a certain point, if a gazelle couldn’t run well, it didn’t matter what else it had, because it was failing the mandatory goals for its niche.

  49. #50 Gordon
    June 12, 2007

    Sorry for the late response – I just found a link to this post.

    The odd part of the Bloom/Weisberg article and Myer’s post here is that strict materialism gives us no reason to expect a logical mind in the first place. If our minds are the random results of unguided stochastic processes then the real question is not why some people are illogical, but rather how and why anyone can distinguish good logic from poor logic.

    Taking it a step further, how can any of us put any confidence in any form of science at all. If our minds are merely chemical automata – it would seem equally likely that our evolutionary history has yielded a diversity of cognitive illusions, and that none of us are capable of valid deductions in biology, religion, etc.

    (I find this perspective to be repugnant. I will not yield my confidence in science or my confidence that my mind transcends the deterministic chemical processes that mediate interaction with the physical world.)

  50. #51 Harie
    July 18, 2007

    Why do people believe in bad ideas?

    Sorry for the very late reply (just found this highly interesting blog)

    A hypothesis I’m contemplating already for a while is that each belief is associated with a subconscious valuation in the mind.

    This value is positively influenced by the “perceived utility” of the belief, and negatively by its eventual non-correspondence with observed reality.

    Applied on religious beliefs, the perceived utility basically comes down on the comfort that is provided by giving easy, effortless solutions for the most difficult problems (where do we come from, where do we go to, don’t want to be annihilated at death, don’t want to loose my loved ones forever etc.,). Numerous problems are dissolved at once just by accepting such a pre-formulated religious belief system. Many people are irresistibly tempted to accept and cultivate such a system. The perceived advantages are just too great to even contemplate the possibility of giving it up. Each threat to such a belief system is perceived as an infringement, as if a highly valued good is at stake. From there: an immediate defensive reaction towards any threat to the belief system.

    Non-correspondence with reality of those belief systems is not always straightforward, as they mostly handle spiritual elements and ancient, hard to verify sources. From there: little counterweight to the high perceived utility in order to undermine their value. Until science slowly but steadily undermines their assumptions and the reliability of their sources.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.